Critic's Notebook: Music under siege in Met's "Wozzeck"

The Metropolitan Opera's new "Wozzeck" production - staring Peter Mattei in the title role - seen in the Berkshires in the Met's HD series, arrived amid the United States' growing military involvement in the Middle East. The production seemed at war with the music.

LENOX — Alban Berg's war opera "Wozzeck" came along this month just at a time when men in Washington were acting as if war were nothing more consequential than opera.

"Wozzeck" is not explicitly antiwar like Britten's "War Requiem," the 20th century's other musical monument to the senselessness of slaughter in the name of national glory. Where "War Requiem" pits armies against one another, "Wozzeck" lets the degradation and death of a single lowly soldier speak for all. The two works top a long list of musical compositions that grapple with issues posed by war.

"My subject is War, and the pity of War. / The poetry is in the pity," Britten inscribes his work. "All a poet can do today is warn."

The lines are by English poet Wilfrid Owen, who died in battle in the last days of World War I. They could stand equally for "Wozzeck," the grim reflection of a composer who served in the Austro-Hungarian army during that war. Britten sets war poems by Owen in clashing juxtaposition against Roman Catholic Requiem liturgy. Berg based "Wozzeck" on an unfinished play by Georg Buchner.

The musical styles are unlike: Britten's essentially tonal, Berg's mixed but often atonal. The message is the same: sorrow and compassion. Pity is not just for the dead, but in the piteous waste of life. Against forces arrayed by nations, all a poet can do — or, for that matter, all an ordinary citizen can do — is warn.

The paradox is that the people most in need of hearing antiwar messages in music, or encountering them in theater, art and literature, are the people least likely to heed or even understand them.

The Metropolitan Opera's new "Wozzeck" production, seen in the Berkshires in the Met's HD series, arrived amid the United States' growing military involvement in the Middle East. The production seemed at war with the music.

"Wozzeck" tells the story of a common soldier who suffers the betrayals of his lover, Marie; the boasts of the drum major who seduces her; and the mockery and medical experiments of a sadistic doctor and captain. Under a blood-red moon, Wozzeck winds up murdering Marie and drowning in the lake where he threw her body.

Conducted by Yannick N zet-S guin with the Met orchestra and a potent cast headed by Peter Mattei as Wozzeck and Elza van den Heever as Marie, the performance made good on the music's promise. Mattei brought out Wozzeck's increasingly confused, even dazed state, and van den Heever was ambivalent in her passion for the pompous drum major. But it is the orchestra that carries the story here, and the Met players, if a bit restrained, delivered the message with clarity and force.

The shock was undercut by William Kentridge's direction and procession of grisly black and white projections of war scenes (he also did the projections for the Met's "Lulu" and "The Nose"). The period was moved up from Berg's early 19th century to World War I. Instead of Berg's garrison-town setting, the projections had corpselike faces and bodies emerging in and out of grotesquely distorted battlefield wreckage; maps of battle lines placed the action in Flanders. Most pointedly horrific of all, Wozzeck and Marie's illegitimate son appeared as a disfigured wooden puppet in a gas mask.

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We get it. It was pounded into us. War is horrible. All the busy stuff in the background, along with narrow, crooked ramps that the singers dangerously had to navigate, were a distraction from Berg's music. Normally in the tragic final scene, the child innocently hops about on his hobbyhorse while other children taunt him that his mother is dead. Here, the gas-masked dummy blindly stumbled along, aided by medics. Duh. The ending fizzled out.

If war is a waste, so is excess technology.

What next?

Tanks churning over snow-covered steppes during Shostakovich's grinding, groaning Seventh Symphony? Egyptian and Ethiopian armies fighting it out in the desert during "Aida"? Musket-equipped Albanians marching out of step during "Cosi fan tutte"? A bugler sounding alarms of war during the closing plea for peace in Beethoven's Missa solemnis?

In The New Yorker, critic Alex Ross astutely pointed out the ultimate loss from Kentridge's "brilliant but somehow hollow" staging. As composed, Ross wrote, the opera charts Wozzeck's descent into insanity amid his torments. Despite the singers' and orchestra's general excellence, the busy-work imagery subverted the psychological drama.

Here's an idea. Let's sit the world's leaders in the Met and make them watch a performance of "Wozzeck." Let's even give them projections to be sure they get the point. Given their proclivities, which would they choose, peace or war?                                                                                                                                  

We know the answer all too well.                                                                                                              

Trust music.