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First Nighter: The Met's New 'Wozzeck' with Matthias Goerne Confidently Stepping In

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The first performance of the new Wozzeck production at the Metropolitan Opera House turned into one of those show-must-go-on episodes that turn up not only on the arts pages but also as local news. When that happens, what actually unfolds on stage can get short-changed. Maybe it did this time.

Thomas Hampson was supposed to take on the title role, but earlier in the day he withdrew, indicating bronchitis as the cause. Lucky for Peter Gelb and relatively lucky, too, for production coordinator Mark Lamos, German baritone Matthias Goerne was in town.

Even more fortunate, Goerne has played hapless soldier Wozzeck many times, most recently in a Carnegie Hall concert staging last Friday night. And even more fortunate than that, he'd attended the Monday morning Wozzeck dress rehearsal prior to the Wednesday bow. Immediately contacted by Gelb, Goerne said he was game and then showed up for an afternoon costume fitting and run-through with conductor James Levine.

How did he do? Extremely well under the circumstances. But there were those circumstances. On Tuesday night Goerne had also sung Franz Schubert's Die Schone Mullerin song cycle at Carnegie Hall. That's a lot of singing the previous five nights. He also had to learn the blocking for the production after having viewed it once and then being given a few hours to go through it with Lamos and/or stage director Gregory Keller, both of whom surely had many other things on their opening-night minds.

As a veteran Wozzeck, the bulky Goerne knew the endlessly put-upon man he was playing and gave the impression he was aware of exactly where he needed to be from moment to moment, both physically and psychologically. He was movingly stentorian during much of Wozzeck's frustrated and increasingly distrait descent. But there were times when he was less audible than others, a situation that may be chalked up to vocal overwork. Or maybe just as likely to a lapse of concentration while figuring out whether he was in the right place at the right time.

Others on stage -- all of them undoubtedly concerned over Goerne's well being -- performed with facility. Deborah Voigt as Marie, the wife running around with the bombastic Drum Major (Simon O'Neill) gave out with effectively piercing cries on the many occasions when the woman betrays the feelings she has as an unmoored mother. (Anthony Reznikovsky plays the unaware boy well.) She's required to sing mostly in her higher register, and that's a help, too, these days.

Peter Hoare and Clive Bailey as, respectively, the Captain and the Doctor, Wozzeck's frequent taunters, had their characters in hand. Tamara Mumford was especially eye-and-ear-catching in her short scene as Margret, the flirt who puts the moves on Wozzeck until she notices the dead Marie's blood on his hand and sleeve.

A description of the look of this Wozzeck is already past due. So here it is. Since the opera debuted in 1925, Lamos and set and costume designer Robert Israel clearly got to thinking about the esthetics of German Expressionism, perhaps most familiar now to movie fans of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. High walls dwarfing the cast shift and tilt from scene to scene; at the outset lighting designer James F. Ingalls throws long and menacing shadows again those grey walls.

A solid blue show curtain lifts and lowers between each of the 15 segments throughout which Wozzeck tries to understand why he's becoming increasingly ostracized. Before his alienation leads him to murder his straying wife and leave his child abandoned, he feels his predicament most acutely in a tavern and then at a street festival where couples bump and grind clumsily around him. (No choreographer is credited for the wonderful movements.) Lamos makes all of this connect with skill, if not with breathtaking inspiration.

Undeniable inspiration is in Alban Berg's score, it should be needless to say 89 years on. Its jagged stretches are like lines in a George Grosz etching. Into it an occasional sweet melody fits like a flower poking up through a crack in cement. There's no missing that the music is a metaphor for the turmoil in Wozzeck's mind, and Levine conducts it for utmost effectiveness.

For many listeners, the zenith is reached with the crescendos in the interval following Marie's stabbing. The mounting intensity in the two mounting B chords is almost unbearable and at the same time irresistible. Levine and orchestra make the absolute most of them. Opera lovers with the money to spare might think they've gotten their ticket's worth from that minute or two of music alone.