New Year's Eve at the Met

Today's program at the Metropolitan Opera in New York is a study incontrasts. For the matinee, Musical Director James Levine will present Alban Berg's Wozzeck, while Maestro Jacques Lacombe will present Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus for the evening program. There are not two more different opera's in the repertoire.

Filled with dance tunes you can whistle and comedic schtick you can't but laugh at, Strauss' operetta is the perfect introduction to the art form. After Baron von Eisenstein is sentenced to jail for eight days, he decides to fortify himself by attending a grand ball given by Russian Prince Orlofsky where he intends to engage in a little extramarital amusement. The party is also attended by von Eisenstein's chamber maid Adele, his wife Rosalinde, the director of the prison Frank, and his friend Faulke. Everyone pretends to be someone they are not, with Rosalinde masked and unrecognizable. The domestic hysterionics which follow are all orchestrated by Faulke as retorbution for a prank von Eisenstein once played on his friend, dressing him as a bat (die fledermaus) for a costume party.

What seems bizarre about this operetta is its popularity. It has become a holiday favorite, probably because the flowing champagne, yet it is a comedy about marital inifedility and drunken perfidity. Musically, Die Fledermaus is light and airy, driven by waltzes and polkas, while the costumes and set sparkle as only nineteenth century Vienna can. Look more deeply though, and there is social commentary. Though none of the characters is evil, neither do they have many redeeming qualities. They are each completely self-absorbed, willing to cheat, lie, and fake their way through life just for the entertainment of a bored aristocrat.

This production rises to the level of perfection one expects from the Met. All of the voices are pitch perfect, and the choreography revivals the most holiday productions of The Nutcracker. Two stand outs in the present cast must be noted: Marlis Petersen, the German soprano who makes her Met debut in the role of Adele, is marvelous both as an actress and singer, and Bill Irwin, Broadway and television star, enlivens the third act with his non-singing portrayal of Frosch the drunken jailer.

Die Fledermaus is worth seeing, but as one friend said, once you have seen it, you don't need to see it again.

Wozzeck, on the otherhand, warrants a lifetime of listening. Alban Berg's modern atonal masterpiece tells the story of a poor soldier who is crushed by life. The opera opens with Wozzeck shaving his captain while being berated for having a child out of wedlock. Wozzeck reponds that the poor cannot afford morals. In order to support his common law wife Marie and child, Wozzeck offers his body for experimentation by a quack doctor who berates him for urinating without permission. While gathering wood, he is beset by evil visions. Finally, Wozzeck witnesses Marie dancing with a military dram major, and the officer humiliates Wozzeck by beating him bloody in the barracks in front of the other soldiers.

Berg's opera is difficult to listen to because it is so different from what we normally hear. The atonlity works. As Wozzeck loses his grip on his sanity, the music becomes more dissonant. In other words, the music has meaning; it is not just an airy accompaniment to the singing. In this way, Berg is more in line with Johann Sebastian Bach's countrapuntal baroque than Strauss' dance tunes.

The present revival at the Met is dark and mysterious as it should be. The harsh lighting and bare modernist stage reinforce the wasteland that is the life of the poor. Alan Held, the American bass-barritone who portrays Wozzeck, is emotionally brilliant, while Katrina Dalayman the Swedish soprano who sings Marie, is touching when she sings to her son, played by Jacob Wade.