I take the subway up the Hudson River today for a visit to Grants tomb. Once upon a time this was one of the most visited tourist destinations in the country, but no longer.
Everyone must still be nursing hangovers from last nights New Years Eve parties, the morning is Walking Dead quiet. I am alone other than the National Monument employee sitting behind a desk. I sign my name to a big ledger and feel a strong obligation to offer a conversational ice-breaker with this one other human. I say nothing
Grant is entombed here in NYC because his dying wish was to be buried beside his wife and they don’t allow that in the National Cemetery. What a romantic. He is entombed beside Julia on the lower floor, circled by his generals from the Civil War immortalized as sculpture busts in bronze.
Grant wrote a truly authentic memoir that begins with surprisingly blunt honesty that he is writing it for money after being swindled by a friend and losing all his savings. In old age with a slow death he is supported on the kindness of friends while the rest of the public send him wagons full of cigars. Grant, a loving husband and natural horsemen, was simply un-rattled and cool-headed in combat. Lincoln personally chose him to be the Commanding General. The memoir puts him and the family well in the black shortly before he’s laid to rest. The publisher gave him a percentage worthy of his contribution to the country and to Lincoln’s vision.
While Grant epitomizes the stoic and fearless general. The opera Wozzeck shows us an inversion of the romantic hero. It is based on a real Leipzig soldier and informed by the Composer Berg’s own experiences in WWI.
Berg said, “There is a bit of me in this character since I have been spending these war years just as dependent on people I hate, have been in chains, sic, captive, resigned, in fact humiliated. Still, perhaps, but for this, that musical expression wouldn’t have occurred to me.” – Playbill
I am hollowed and then crushed by Wozzeck. The title character is full of neurotic thoughts about his ‘fluids.’ It is the manifestation of living a post-traumatic event as a powerless functionary in an overtly bureaucratic hierarchy. Berg writes Wozzeck’s anxiety into the score like poison in the bloodstream.
The music is so complex it typically requires extra rehearsal time for the musicians. It is admittedly technically over my head, but in that good way that keeps me paying attention. The effect however is not lost on me and I have a lot of sympathy for Wozzeck. I’m super happy that Yannick is conducting.
The staging is designed by the artist William Kentridge. Not always bad because it has amazing textures with layers of wood and charcoal, but too often it was too much. During one of the most richly textured moments in the orchestra that I wanted to really hear, instead is accompanied by a pirouetting dancer with a crutch awkwardly dancing. It was silly and worse, distracting from the music. Also, a lot of the imagery felt like adolescent first-solutions like gas masks and crutches.
We actually saw this twice, once from the orchestra and once from up top, and in both instances parts of the set was obstructed from view which made me think it might have been more immersive in a smaller theatre, but didn’t work in the Met’s large auditorium. Nor was it re-imagined and fitted for the Met. The son who is represented by a puppet really worked for me in orchestra row F, but not at all from family circle.
So what is Wozzeck all about? It begins with Marie who has an illegitimate child with him, but she is seduced and won over by a flamboyant drum major and cheats on Wozzeck. Meanwhile Wozzeck who is a minor functionary is bullied by his superiors and becoming increasingly neurotic aided by a pseudo-scientist who analyzes his pee and prescribes he should eat more beans. There is one thing holding Wozzecks psyche together in this war time setting where he has no control over any aspect of his life, and that one thing is Marie. When he discovers that she has cheated on him, Wozzeck unravels toward a dramatic middle and a haunting end.
Notes on the production
Composer………………………. Alban Berg
Wozzeck…………………….…… Peter Mattei
Marie……………………………….. Elza van den Heever
The Captain…………………….. Gerhard Siegel
The Doctor……………………… Christian Van Horn
Margaret………………………… Tamara Mumford
Andres…………………………….. Andrew Staples
Conductor………………………. Yannick Nézet-Séguin