Wozzeck at the MET - a history
by Dr. Garry Spector
Garry Spector has been attending Metropolitan Opera performances for the last 41 years and has attended over 900 MET performances to date. Since 1995, Garry has been married to the MET Orchestra’s 2nd Oboist, Susan Spector. Garry and Susan were introduced in 1994 by former MET soprano Judith Blegen and her husband, Raymond Gniewek, who served as the MET Orchestra’s Concertmaster for 43 years (1957-2000). Susan and Garry are the parents of Melanie, who sang for seven years in the MET Children’s Chorus. Garry is also a proud member of the MET’s Major Gifts program. When not at the opera, Garry is the Senior Vice President of Fibertek, Inc., a defense contractor located in Herndon, VA.
In honor of Wozzeck’s return to the MET stage, Garry brings you this history of the MET’s long association with Berg’s masterpiece.
The Metropolitan Opera will be reviving its Mark Lamos production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck this March. The premiere performance is March 6 (broadcast via SIRIUSXM Met Opera Radio); four performances follow, culminating in the Saturday, March 22nd international radio broadcast. Two stalwarts of the Metropolitan Opera for over twenty years will sing their roles for the first time on ANY stage—Thomas Hampson as the title character, and Deborah Voigt as Marie. MET Music Director James Levine will conduct.
Wozzeck at the MET by the numbers: Since its Metropolitan Opera premiere on March 5, 1959, the work has been presented a total of 64 times; James Levine has conducted Wozzeck a total of 43 times. Except for three performances conducted by Jeffrey Tate in 1985, Levine has conducted every performance of Wozzeck at the MET since 1974. The remaining performances of Wozzeck were conducted by Karl Böhm (14, including the MET premiere) and Sir Colin Davis (4).
Premiere and early performances
The world premiere of Wozzeck took place in Berlin in 1925, conducted by Erich Kleiber (father of conductor Carlos Kleiber). The American premiere took place five years later in Philadelphia, conducted by Leopold Stokowski. (Olin Downes in the NYTimes called it an “astonishing success”). Stokowski brought the opera to New York in November, 1931; it was performed at the Metropolitan Opera House, but by the same Philadelphia forces that had participated in the US premiere. In 1951, Dmitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic performed (in concert) and recorded Wozzeck with Eileen Farrell as Marie and Mack Harrell (father of Lynn Harrell, the cellist who joins the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in May,) in the title role. In April of 1952, Joseph Rosenstock conducted a staged Wozzeck by the New York City Opera at City Center.
Wozzeck finally reached the stage of the MET in March, 1959, in an English translation by Vida Harford and Eric Blackall. Karl Böhm conducted a cast featuring Hermann Uhde as Wozzeck, Eleanor Steber as Marie, Karl Dönch as the Doctor, Paul Franke as the Captain and Kurt Baum as the Drum Major. Maestro Böhm received an unprecedented 24 orchestra rehearsals! The production at the MET was designed by Casper Neher, who had worked with Berg on German productions of Wozzeck in the late 1920’s. Herbert Graf was the Stage Director. Irving Kolodin, in the “Saturday Review”, summed up the reaction to the “new” work: “Hearing Wozzeck with so much high-pressured effort expended upon it, with a complement of highly talented if not wholly suitable people laboring on its behalf, stimulates a curiosity for much more knowledge about it than we currently possess. It is evident that many musical phrases and thematic elements are passed back and forth as the work progresses, and the interludes assume increasingly more importance. The last interlude, a dirge for the collapsed world of Wozzeck and Marie, is tensely, proudly beautiful and expressive, giving rise to a curiosity as to how it is really put together. If the present production stimulates more question of the sort - and, perhaps, a few answers - it will have given cause to thank Rudolf Bing far beyond another new Puccini production or even Cav and Pag.”
Although it was not a box office success (Miles Kastendieck in the New York Journal-American, noted that it was a box office disaster), Wozzeck returned to the MET in the 1960-61 season with most of its premiere cast intact. Böhm conducted, Hermann Uhde sang Wozzeck, Eleanor Steber sang Marie, Paul Franke was the Captain, Ralph Herbert was the Doctor, and Kurt Baum was the Drum Major. When it returned for the 1964-65 season, Böhm once again conducted. This time, the role of Wozzeck was sung by William Dooley. Brenda Lewis and Helga Pilarczyk split the role of Marie, Paul Franke was again the Captain, Donald Gramm was the Doctor, and Kurt Baum was again the Drum Major.
When Wozzeck returned to the MET at the end of the 1968-69 season, it was conducted by Sir (later) Colin Davis, and featured Sir (later) Geraint Evans in the title role. Evelyn Lear sang Marie, Robert Nagy the Drum Major, Donald Gramm was again the Doctor, and Paul Franke, who had sung every performance of the work to date, continued as the Captain. The 1968-69 revival was the first in the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center.
In 1974, James Levine conducted his first performances of Wozzeck at the MET. His cast featured two holdovers from the previous run: Paul Franke as the Captain and Donald Gramm as the Doctor. The British baritone Peter Glossop sang Wozzeck and Janis Martin, Marie. (Martin was in the process of adding the Wagnerian heroines to her repertory; she would later be a distinguished Sieglinde at the MET, and she had sung Kundry in the previous season’s Parsifal broadcast). Harold C. Schonberg, in the NYTimes, cited Levine for “approaching the score as it should be approached—as part of the mainstream of music. He conducted a kind of warm colorful performance that put into highlights the Wagnerian influences that went into Wozzeck. As Mr. Levine went through the evening, one did not think in terms of ‘modern music’. One thought only in terms of music.”
As of November 2, 1974, Wozzeck had received 23 performances with English translation. Because of copyright issues with the English translation, none of the translated performances of Wozzeck have been broadcast on SIRIUSXM, nor are they available on the MET’s streaming service (MET Opera on Demand).
Heretofore, Wozzeck had always been performed in three acts with two intermissions, which considerably lengthened an evening of only 95 minutes of music. This was to change with the next revival of Wozzeck, conducted by James Levine in 1979-80. For the first time, Wozzeck was sung in the original German, and the work was performed as it is today, in one act, without intermission, with brief pauses at the ends of Berg’s original acts.
For the initial German performances of the work, the great Belgian bass-baritone Jose van Dam sang the title role. Hildegard Behrens was to have sung Marie, but her cancellation brought the magnetic German soprano Anja Silja to the role. Ragnar Ulfung was the Captain, Dieter Weller the Doctor and Richard Cassilly was the Drum Major. At later performances, Allan Monk sang Wozzeck. Schonberg, again reviewing Wozzeck for the NYTimes, noted that “the days are long past when Wozzeck gives an experienced orchestra much trouble. Saturday night, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, conducted by James Levine, sounded sure, confident and even virtuosic.”
The magnificent broadcast from March 8, 1980 is available on CD as part of the James Levine 40th Anniversary commemorative set; it is also available separately on CD from the MET Opera Shop and Amazon, and via streaming from MET Opera on Demand.
Fun fact: The MET’s first performance of Wozzeck in the original German took place in 1979. Previously, it was performed in English.
The MET next revived Wozzeck during the 1984-85 season. During this 50th anniversary of Berg’s death and the centenary of his birth, the MET staged both of Berg’s operas, Wozzeck and Lulu. With Levine splitting conducting duties with British conductor Jeffrey Tate, soprano Hildegard Behrens sang a memorable Marie, with Christian Boesch (who had sung many Papagenos at Salzburg with Levine) as Wozzeck, familiar faces Ragnar Ulfung and Richard Cassilly as the Captain and Drum Major, respectively, and Franz Mazura as the Doctor. The 1985 broadcast is available from the MET Opera on Demand streaming service.
The orchestra received rave reviews under both conductors. John Rockwell in the NYTimes reported “The most successful of the three cast changes involved the conductor, Jeffrey Tate. James Levine had led a massive, Mahlerian performance, but one still full of precise detail. Mr. Tate - who of course benefited from the several performances the orchestra had played - drew even more delicate, pristine playing from the musicians; never before had Berg's gifts as a psychologically acute colorist seemed more apparent.”
Five years later, the MET revived their original Casper Neher production of Wozzeck for the final time. Before the season began, the great Danish bass Aage Haugland, famous at the MET for his portrayal of Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier, was announced for the title role. This did not come to pass; Haugland cancelled, and the role of Wozzeck was sung by Gottfried Hornik. Behrens repeated her magnificent Marie, with a trio of great Wagnerians (James King as the Drum Major, Graham Clark as the Captain and Donald McIntyre as the Doctor) in supporting roles. Rockwell, in the NYTimes, reviewed the 1989-90 revival: “Mr. Levine approaches the score with Mahlerian expansiveness, yet he does not slight the tart bite of the satire. And he had the Met orchestra playing up to its highest abilities, with sure work from the chorus as well.”
David Alden had restaged the original production in 1980; he supervised the 1985 and 1990 revivals as well. The Neher production was retired after 44 performances.
The new—and current—production of Wozzeck, directed by Mark Lamos and designed by Robert Israel, premiered on February 10, 1997. It was a dark production with splashes of color and excellent use of shadow effects. It served as the debut of Falk Struckmann as Wozzeck, with Graham Clark as the Captain, Michael Devlin as the Doctor and Mark Baker as the Drum Major. In an odd bit of casting, Maria Ewing sang Marie in what would prove to be her final MET performances. As per usual, Levine was in the pit. Bernard Holland’s review in the NYTimes stated “the performance of James Levine and his Met orchestra made every rhythm and crossing meter clear, invested even the most complex chord with intonational purity and yet never sacrificed the music's moaning lyricism or outright savagery. Perhaps no other conductor and orchestra consistently arrive at such a happy paradox: transparency at no loss of weight and breadth.”
The Lamos Wozzeck has made regular appearances on the MET stage since its 1997 premiere. It returned in 1999 for Behrens (for the last time—it served as her MET farewell) and Franz Grundheber as Wozzeck (the two had made a superb film of the opera conducted by Claudio Abbado). Baker repeated his Drum Major with Kenneth Riegel and Franz Hawlata as the Captain and Doctor. Per Paul Griffiths in the NYTimes, “Ms. Behrens, as Marie, sheds decades and sings with exhilaration in her voice, the exhilaration of someone whose love of existence is heightened by the knowledge of imminent death. Her singing is strong, rich with compassion and vital.” And once again, the orchestra and Levine drew raves: “Wozzeck is an opera that dares to work like a play, and here it does, not that the orchestra is in any way subservient or incidental. It could not possibly be, with James Levine and his musicians making the score sound beautiful always and sometimes, in perfectly tuned wind chords or a viola solo, breathtakingly so.”
The revival of Wozzeck in 2001 featured a performance taped for future TV broadcast (in the pre-HD days). Struckmann, Clark and Devlin repeated their roles from the 1997 production premiere, with Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman appearing as a smoldering Marie and Wolfgang Neumann, a former MET Siegfried, appearing as the Drum Major. Levine conducted all four performances. Anthony Tommasini, in the NYTimes, was bowled over: “Perhaps some listeners are put off by the reputation of Wozzeck as an 'atonal' score, with that word's connotations of gnashing dissonance and angst. But atonal is too simplistic a way to describe Berg's waywardly chromatic post-Romantic language and searching explorations of harmony and color. Under the inspired conducting of James Levine the music was searingly beautiful. As played here, the wistfully sumptuous string writing rivaled the most beguiling passages in Parsifal. Even the gnarly, brassy outbursts, though raw and biting, were somehow elegant, never crude. Structurally, the score is a succession of Neo-Classical musical forms (passacaglia, march, sonata movement, fantasy, fugue and such). Mr. Levine projected these forms, but discretely, so as not to lose the taut dramatic arc that kept you hooked for 100 minutes straight, with only brief pauses separating the three inexorable acts.”
The telecast never took place, and the video of Wozzeck went unreleased for over ten years. Finally, to commemorate Levine’s 40th anniversary at the MET, the DVD of Wozzeck was finally released. It is available from the MET Opera Shop and on Amazon.
Maestro Levine led the next revival of Wozzeck in December, 2005. It was pointed out in the press that scheduling Wozzeck, along with the premiere of Tobias Picker’s “American Tragedy,” was not providing standard holiday fare!
The revival was dignified by the superb Wozzeck of Alan Held, a giant of a man who cast particularly long and disturbing shadows in the Lamos production. Held was joined by Dalayman, repeating her expert Marie, Clark, repeating his hyperactive Captain, Clifton Forbis as the Drum Major and Walter Fink, debuting as the Doctor. Tommasini, in the NYTimes, continued to find miracles in Levine’s conducting of Berg’s masterpiece: “Though Mr. Levine illuminates that structure, the message of his performance to listeners is: ‘Let me worry about all that; you just sit back and let yourself respond to dramatic sweep and musical power of this tragic story.’ Through careful voicing of chords, attention to details, coaxing of inner lines, expressive nuances and sheer intensity, he drew an electrifying performance from the Met orchestra, revealing this pungent score to be deeply emotional and excruciatingly beautiful.”
By the time the next revival of Wozzeck was scheduled, Levine’s health was in question. He had become Music Director of the Boston Symphony, but had suffered injuries and illnesses that had kept him off the podiums of both the BSO and the MET. In the spring of 2011, he was forced to cancel the spring return of the new Das Rheingold, performances of Tosca and the MET Orchestra’s May Carnegie Hall Concert. By doing so, he was able to conduct the new MET Die Walkure and the Wozzeck revival.
The German baritone Matthias Goerne was supposed to have sung the title role, but he cancelled before the rehearsal period, and Alan Held stepped in to dominate the opera as he did in 2005. The great German mezzo soprano Waltraud Meier sang her first MET Marie, while Fink returned as the Doctor. Gerhard Siegel, the MET’s Mime since 2004, sang the Captain while tenor Stuart Skelton debuted as the Drum Major. Once more, Tommasini in the NYTimes—“But inevitably this was Mr. Levine’s night. I will not soon forget the pulsing intensity and surging sound he brought to the orchestral interlude near the end of Act III, after the scene in which Wozzeck, panicked over having killed Marie in a fit, drowns in a pond while trying to hide his knife; or the eerie playfulness Mr. Levine teased from the short final scene, in which neighborhood children curtly tell Marie’s boy that his mother is dead.”
Wozzeck has been long and proudly served by the Metropolitan Opera. It is doubtful that the brave souls who ventured to the old MET in 1959 would have predicted the staying power of this magnificent work. It will doubtless remain in the MET repertory as long as opera is being produced.