It’s been a bitterly cold winter in NY. When it’s bitterly cold, the air is dry. When the air is dry, those nagging coughs tend to overstay their welcome. And when those nagging coughs overstay their welcomes, singers have to cancel. And so now twice in one week, the Met has had a major cancellation that caused a major buzz among the opera faithful. The first cancellation was Jonas Kaufmann in Werther on Monday which led to the debut of Jean-Francois Borras, a last minute cover with a stunningly beautiful tenor voice. The second cancellation occurred Thursday, when at 2:10 the Met announced that Thomas Hampson had withdrawn from opening night of Wozzeck, and Matthias Goerne would replace him.  

Goerne had just happened to be in New york last week to sing, what else, Wozzeck! And what’s more, according to the press release, “The Met approached the German star baritone, who was in New York performing at Carnegie Hall, yesterday evening as soon as the artistic staff learned of Hampson’s withdrawal. Goerne sang a solo recital at Carnegie Hall and then considered the offer overnight before agreeing. This afternoon, he came to the Met for musical and staging rehearsals with Maestro James Levine and the company’s staff directors. In a serendipitous twist, Goerne attended Monday’s dress rehearsal of Wozzeck as a guest, allowing him a chance to see the production in advance.”

All this extra verbiage differentiates this notice of cancellation from the usual terse one-liner press releases and made me a little suspicious. Isn’t it a bit reminiscent of All About Eve? Let’s face it, I don’t think anyone was dying to hear Hampson’s Wozzeck except for maybe his friends and family. The aging semi-barihunk has an arch, affected, pretentious delivery that goes against the very nature of Berg’s pathetic, delusional anti-hero. Anyway, we all wish Hampson a speedy recovery yadda yadda yadda. Now let’s get to the performance.

Goerne is certainly experienced in this role, and it shows. His interpretation of Wozzeck resembles that crazy guy ranting about Jesus on the subway. He’s got the awkward gait, the clumsy lurch, the poor hygiene, and the dead eyes of someone who is very mentally ill. His Wozzeck is too deranged to generate much sympathy. Goerne makes the already creepy scene with the Doctor (Clive Bailey) even creepier by adding a sexual overtone. Goerne starts caressing the doctor’s thighs and legs and for a minute I thought it was going down the pitcher/catcher route. His interactions with Marie (Deborah Voigt) also have a strong ick factor.

Vocally however he’s on the light side, and often overpowered by the loud, vibrant orchestra. He’s basically a lieder singer type, and his sprechgesang was locked in a battle with Jimmy’s blaring horns all night. It was theatrically a very compelling portrayal of a man teetering on the edge of sanity, but I have a feeling that if I were to listen to a recording of this performance I’d find Goerne less impressive.

Voigt has lots of vocal issues, but inaudibility is not one of them. She still has plenty of volume and squillo up top, although there’s that unsteadiness. The hollowness of the rest of her voice was compensated by the fact that Berg kind of allows for a barking sing-speech. The more lyrical parts of the score (like her lullaby to her son) betrayed her vocal weaknesses, but eh, everyone will say that she wasn’t as great as ____ (name your favorite Marie.) In my opinion, though, but it’s the best thing Debbie’s done in years.

Her acting was better than expected. She was dressed in a shapeless muumuu and flat shoes, and her hair wasn’t “period” at all, but just the Debbie Voigt blowdry she sports when she hosts the HDs. She really embraced the role of the trashy, desperate, pathetic Marie. She looked a lot like the current Tonya Harding in the recent NBC retrospective that was aired during the Sochi Olympics—middle-aged, careworn, and really scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of men. Her scenes with her son had the right mix of tenderness and neglect. She loves him, but not enough to do right by him.

Wozzeck really demands so much acting that I’ll just say the rest of the cast acted their parts ably. The Mark Lamos production dates from 1997 and takes a nearly “Our Town” approach to the opera. Bleak black walls and the occasional piece of furniture are the only scenery. It’s effective in creating an existentialist atmosphere, although I kind of wonder whether this was one of those cases where the director said “peace out, Uncle Joe” in the middle of rehearsal and the audience was left with a “spare minimalist production,” Luckily the dramaturgy in Wozzeck is already very specific. The music really does the acting for the cast. My only objection is all the times the black curtain drops during orchestral interludes. Surely it would be more effective to have some stage pictures to accompany them?

The real star of the night was of course Levine and the Met orchestra. Berg’s orchestration is so rich the singers often seem like annoying sideshows. This opera is a specialty of Levine’s, and he knows how to create vibrant sounds with the orchestra. One of the most vivid: when the Drum Major and Marie consummate their affair, their is no duet. Only a loud, screeching, porn-like orgasm in the orchestra. And of course, when Wozzeck kills Marie, that striking chord is priceless. Jimmy however was merciless with the singers. He had no problems completely drowning them out and showing who was boss.

So the wind, snow, and sub-zero temperatures have created an operatic Hunger Games, where one singer’s sickness is another singer’s big break. May the odds be ever in your favor.