If all had gone as planned, James Levine would have been on the podium on Sunday, conducting his splendid Met Orchestra in music of Mozart, Brahms and Wuorinen (top ticket $155!). Fate decreed otherwise.

Recuperating from shoulder surgery, Levine turned up in a box seat for the initial half-hour of a reconstituted programme led by James Conlon. The able substitute began warmly with Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony, the only hold-over from the original schedule, and ended with Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini. In between, one operatic tyro and two bona fide stars opened a grab-bag of arias.

The tyro, Erika Sunnegardh, sang first and last. A couple of months ago she was a virtual unknown, with scant experience in Scandinavia. Then the Met enlisted her to replace Karita Mattila in a broadcast of Fidelio. The publicity machines cranked overtime. Mesmerised by the idea that she had once toiled as a waitress, The New York Times grasped for star-is-born clichés. It did not hurt that the lady was blonde and picturesque. It did not help that her singing, under horrible pressure, was flawed.

On this occasion she looked terrific, modelling two clingy gowns, but sounded uneven. Her voice is wide open and a bit shrill at the top, thinner below. Obviously brave and possibly foolhardy, she attempted challenges that daunt many a seasoned dramatic soprano. She blurred the raging bravura of Elettra’s “D’Oreste, d’Ajace” from Mozart’s Idomeneo, simulated impetuosity deftly as Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walküre and raised Puccinian rafters with the relentless ascents of Turandot’s “In questa reggia”.

Meanwhile, her colleagues dealt in revelations. Ben Heppner, still a great bright hope among heldentenors, balanced the passion of Wagner’s Siegmund with the pathos of Verdi’s Otello. René Pape made Mozart’s Leporello charming (no clowning allowed), then applied remarkably plangent tone to the rolling rhetoric of Verdi’s Procida. The house was not full but the fans were ecstatic. ★★★★☆

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