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Thomas Hampson Reclaims His Role in Metropolitan Opera's Wozzeck

by Robert Leeper

Voigt, Wozzeck

After a delayed start to his run in Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera, Thomas Hampson returned from illness to take over the titular character last week. Hampson's tormented presentation of the oppressed and hapless soldier was missed due to a bout with bronchitis for the first couple of performances of the run, but his return to Alban Berg's 1925 masterpiece was a triumphant one.

Hampson's voice had a sincere humanity to it—an almost boyish naiveté—as his character struggled in vain to support his family, despite the merciless taunting of his superiors and his own ever-loosening clutch on reality. Wozzeck is a terrifying 90-minute depiction of a poor soldier being driven to madness by warped authority figures, and the remnants of Hampson's illness almost contributed to his character's humbled stature.

When Hampson's role required a polished sound, the power required to slice through the orchestra was lacking, but the coarseness in his voice displayed the impotent rage ideal for Berg's unrelenting bleakness. Perhaps grateful for the return of the production's original Wozzeck, Deborah Voight, in particular, gave a haunting, vulnerable performance as the soldier's wife, Marie. Voight came across not as an opportunistic prevaricator, but as a true victim of circumstance who is trying—same as her husband—to do what is best for her family. The emotionally exposed, intense portrayal suited her well, and Voight invested energy, clarity, and character into every phrase.

The gradual degeneration of Wozzeck's mental well-being is heavy subject matter, and the sparse stage setting lent visual support to the emptiness the opera portrays, making abundant use of lighting and shadows to give an inhuman feel to the cruel actions on stage. The score is molded into traditional forms that create an episodic feel to the plot, a feeling heightened by the use of a closed curtain between every segment.

Of course, as is often the case, the show-stealing performance came from James Levine and the MET Orchestra. Levine, conducting with an emphasis on the late-Romantic and yearning expressionist power of the score, coaxed a beautifully tormented sound from the orchestra he loves so dearly. He led with direction and precision, grabbing the short opera with urgency uncommon in a genre known for its sumptuous, overripe standards—showing Wozzeck to be the gold star of compact dramatic storytelling.