As a last-minute sub, Matthias Goerne leads a powerful “Wozzeck” at the Met
The cliched tale of drama behind the scenes in opera goes like this: the diva falls ill, and the ingenue steps in as Violetta or Mimi, dazzling the audience and the critics, and becoming a star overnight. Circumstances at the Metropolitan Opera were the same on Thursday, but the context and outcome were weirdly different.
Start with the opera–Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, one of the greatest of compositions but in no way a divo vehicle. Continue with the original casting that had Thomas Hampson set, radically against type, to debut in the lead. Cue bronchitis that had Hampson withdrawing the day of the opening. Cut to the phone ringing …
Except this time, Superman answered, or the nearest equivalent in classical singing in New York City this past week. Baritone Matthias Goerne, who sang the same role in an excellent concert performance of Wozzeck last Friday at Carnegie Hall, and who gave a highly praised recital of Schubert’s Die schöne Möllerin the night before at Carnegie, stepped into the role literally hours before the curtain. Already a star, he did more than dazzle: he was profoundly, movingly great.
Goerne has plentiful experience in the role and is in the full production at the Vienna State Opera. As the Met aptly described, “fortuitously,” he had attended the dress rehearsal on Monday, so he was roughly familiar with the production. Possibly, during a run-through Thursday morning, the Met adjusted some of the blocking and direction. But anyone who had not read the program note describing the change would never have known Goerne had not been preparing with the company for weeks.
The German baritone is a great performing, interpretive artist: he sang differently than he had at Carnegie, with a darker, more forceful quality and less poetry. He didn’t sing Wozzeck; he was Wozzeck, stalking the stage with weird grace, hitting every mark, meshing perfectly with cast and musicians, modulating his affect from flatness through brief humanity to a scary madness that was both strange and natural. His last lines as he drowned: “I’m washing myself with blood/The water is blood … blood,” were actually seductive.
Though not new (Mark Lamos first produced it in 1997), the staging is intelligent and powerful, with a concept that floats free of time and should remain on the company’s schedule for years to come. The characters wear vaguely Austro-Hungarian style costumes, and the sets are spare—a bed in one scene, a credenza in another—or nonexistent. The characters are dwarfed by a series of enormous, bare, dark walls, tilted at uncomfortable angles.
The effect is expressionistic without being trapped in the specificity of any epochal style. This is enhanced by the lighting, which frequently comes from in front and below the characters, doubling them with huge, eerie shadows on the walls. Black and white are the primary colors, with a dark red at the back of the stage to stand in for the red moon Marie sees in Act III, and for her blood.
Deborah Voigt, herself cast against type, is Marie. She almost pulls it off, but though her Marie does not quite work, she can’t be held responsible. Her acting is fine, her voice is powerful, but there is an inherent integrity in her sound, a “goodness,” which is out of place for the woman who betrays Wozzeck in bed with the human peacock, the Drum Major. Voigt was in her element and most affecting at the start of Act III, when Marie reads the story of Mary Magdalene.
The secondary roles were all accomplished. Clive Bayley, bass, made his company debut as the Doctor. His singing was smooth and strong, and his acting was refreshingly campy, appropriate for a character who’s experiments consist of keeping Wozzeck on a diet of beans and ordering him not to urinate. Tenor Peter Hoare was an excellent foil as the Captain—the “moral” yin to the Doctor’s “scientific” yang—as the two debated Wozzeck’s shortcomings and objectively prescribed solutions.
The music for the Captain and the other tenors, especially Russell Thomas as Andres, pushes into the stratosphere, and all the singers were impressive, showing strength and clarity in their upper ranges. All the small, but key, roles were filled superbly: mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford as Margret; baritone Mark Schowalter as the Second Apprentice; bass Richard Bernstein and tenor Philippe Castagner particularly strong as the First Apprentice and Fool. Anthony Reznikovsky has little more to do on stage than be Marie’s Child, but he was relaxed and natural.
Simon O’Neil, another tenor, was puffed-up and vicious as the Drum Major, his singing confident and strong, and his swagger, whether sober or drunk, carried a real malevolence.
But this was Goerne’s show. He probably has more experience in this intense, demanding role than any other living baritone, an easy explanation for how expressive and powerful he was.
Wozzeck is, likewise, a specialty of music director James Levine. His complete command of the score, its structure and flow was manifest in all details. The Met is an American orchestra and plays with brightness and precision, although the brass were often surprisingly shaky Thursday night. The Met’s playing was consistently more vivid than the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie, but the European players were appreciably more beautiful, their sound better expressing Berg’s post-Mahler aesthetic.
The idea of Hampson as Wozzeck tantalizes the imagination. But it’s hard to imagine any singer in the world bettering Matthias Goerne in this role.
<em>Wozzeck runs through March 22 metoperafamily.org