by Anthony Tomassini
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Last-minute cast changes happen routinely in opera, but seldom with the mix of anxiety and, in the end, triumph that took place on Thursday when the Metropolitan Opera revived its 1997 production of Berg’s “Wozzeck.”
The distinguished German baritone Matthias Goerne, an acclaimed Wozzeck, agreed on Thursday morning to step in that night for an ailing Thomas Hampson. Mr. Goerne was in New York, having sung the role in a concert performance on Feb. 28 with the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall as part of the Vienna: City of Dreams festival.
That Mr. Goerne is a great Wozzeck was clear from his wrenching performance with the Philharmonic. At the Met on Thursday, he so completely inhabited the role — that of a delusional, miserably poor soldier living in a German garrison town around 1830 — and so dominated the stage, that you would have thought that he had spent weeks rehearsing in this stark, gripping production by Mark Lamos, with minimal props, black walls, looming shadows and blotches of bloody reds. (Just out of support for Mr. Hampson, a friend, Mr. Goerne had attended the Met’s dress rehearsal on Monday.)
There was other good news on Thursday: the vocally and dramatically affecting performance of Marie, Wozzeck’s common-law wife and the mother of his son, by the soprano Deborah Voigt. Ms. Voigt has gone through a period of vocal struggles, something she talked about in an interview in The New York Times this fall. She is not now singing the roles she anticipated she would be performing in her glory days as a dramatic soprano. This was Ms. Voigt’s first Marie, and it’s a good part for her.
Marie is a beleaguered woman, whose despair over Wozzeck and their poverty drives her to succumb to a blustering Drum Major, here the Wagnerian tenor Simon O’Neill. Ms. Voigt daringly conveys Marie’s emotional volatility, her mix of desire for the Drum Major and shame over her weakness. One moment this Marie is a radiant mother, glowing with affection for her boy; the next, she is angrily shoving him away, only to panic and, looking needy, beg the child for an embrace.
Though Ms. Voigt’s performance had some wobbly passages and steely top notes, she brought earthy poignancy to the role, especially in Marie’s tender moments with her child. When roused to passion and torment, she sent Marie’s outbursts soaring with visceral intensity.
The conductor James Levine drew an incisive and rapturous performance from the great Met Orchestra and this inspired cast. He has called himself “a Berg freak,” and this opera has long been a specialty of his.
The plushness of the Vienna Philharmonic’s “Wozzeck” performance under Franz Welser-Möst was still fresh for me on Thursday night. The Met Orchestra held its own in the sonic splendor department and outdid the Philharmonic in transparency and precision. This essentially atonal score can be heard as emanating from the heritage of Wagner and Mahler, something that came through in the richness of Mr. Levine’s performance with the Met Orchestra. But he also drew out the music’s disturbing, fractured and radical elements.
In the opening scene, we see Wozzeck shaving his sermonizing Captain (the bright-voiced tenor Peter Hoare), one of the menial tasks he performs to supplement his meager soldier’s salary. A fraught orchestral transition leads to the second scene, and the way Mr. Levine conducted this music, it seemed like the epitome of pulsing, daring 20th-century modernism. Throughout this ingeniously compact 90-minute work, Mr. Levine and his players relished every astringent, piercing beauty of Berg’s harmonic language.
The British bass Clive Bayley made an auspicious Met debut as the Doctor, who enlists Wozzeck as a guinea pig for preposterous medical experiments. Mr. Bayley brings a robust voice and a maniacal gaze to this sneering quack. The tenor Russell Thomas is a vocally hearty Andres, Wozzeck’s only friend. The rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford sings Margret, Marie’s neighbor, who encourages the infatuation with the Drum Major.
In the end, this was Mr. Goerne’s night. When the Captain chastised Wozzeck for not being married to Marie and not having his child blessed by the church, Mr. Goerne tucked bitterness and sting into his sullen, defeated replies that poor people cannot afford to be virtuous. Slowly, Mr. Goerne showed us an unstable Wozzeck transforming into a pitiable but dangerous man, who, in a fit of jealousy, stabs Marie to death, then later drowns trying to recover the weapon from a pond while also thinking that the water might cleanse his guilt.
It would appear that Thursday’s night performance will be Mr. Goerne’s only during the Met’s run of “Wozzeck.” He is going to South Africa to work on a project with the artist and director William Kentridge. So the backstage drama will continue as the Met waits to see if Mr. Hampson, who said on his Facebook page that he had come down with bronchitis, gets better.