Cher Public


LevineI can scarcely remember a performance where so many conflicting thoughts raced through my mind as happened Thursday night during the Met Orchestra’s “bleeding chunks” of Wagner’s Ring at Carnegie Hall. On one hand, superb Wagnerians Christine Goerke and Stefan Vinke soared through duets and solos from Siegfried and Götterdammerung magnificently supported by the sterling orchestra, but the complicated subtext prevented me from entirely enjoying the evening. 

Despite what one thinks about how the surreal drama surrounding it played out the past few years, James Levine’s historic tenure as the Met’s Music Director ended serenely around 10:30, the cataclysm past, the Ring peacefully restored to the (absent) Rhinemaidens. It was a huge calculated risk for Levine to have planned such a long and demanding concert given his recent precarious health, but it proved a surprising triumph, one that may cause some to question why he’s withdrawn from next season’s series of Carnegie concerts and the new Der Rosenkavalier at the Met. Yet it was extremely disturbing to watch his left arm suddenly drop helplessly to his side while his left leg flailed about uncontrollably most of the evening.

One can only imagine the enormous number of rehearsals required to achieve Thursday’s success, as the orchestra played with astonishing virtuosity while the singers never once looked to Levine. But more than once it felt as if Levine—determined to stun his listeners—was wielding a blunt object as dynamics ranged from loud to louder to loudest. Big-voiced Goerke and Vinke more than once were nearly drowned out by the huge orchestra at full cry. Levine’s choices went for the biggest, the grandest, the most portentous (although Siegfried took a speedboat down the Rhine), so by the end, I had a bit of a headache.

Replacing the ailing Johan Botha, German tenor Vinke made a most impressive first appearance with Met forces. He displayed a thrillingly large trumpeting top in Siegfried’s often voice-crushing music. If the middle and lower parts of his voice could sometimes sound parched or grainy, he embodied an earnest bumpkin who ardently if impatiently wooed his awakening bride. A communal delighted gasp greeted his joining Goerke in a high C at the end of the Siegfried duet. Although its text was omitted from the program booklet, the hero’s death brought surprising poetry from Vinke who for the past several years has performed both Siegfrieds at Bayreuth. After this excellent outing, surely a debut on the Met stage is in the works.

This has been a banner season for Goerke who this fall returned to the Met as Turandot, a role she hadn’t sung for a number of years, followed by a triumphant series of concerts of Strauss’s Elektra with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Though many already think of her as an experienced Brünnhilde, she only just sang her first Siegfrieds in Toronto and Houston, and then jumped in for an ailing Catherine Foster in Die Walküre in Washington, DC. This grueling schedule showed no ill effects Thursday as she sounded in even better voice than she had last fall.

In the Siegfried duet, the enormous, enveloping richness of her opening “Heil, dir Sonne!” caused me to gasp in awe. She poured out floods of shining bronzed sound while carefully delineating the complex array of Brünnhilde’s emotions upon waking. She overdid a coquettishness toward her conquering hero; grabbing Siegfried to plant a big kiss on him during the final moments of the duet caused gales of inappropriate laughter—an off-putting misjudgment on her part.

The edge than can sometimes creep into the upper reaches of her voice causing it to become tight and shrewish was little in evidence except in the conclusion of the Immolation Scene which hammers away at that vulnerable part of her soprano. If that demanding scena was her least impressive contribution to the evening, it may be that she has yet to sing the complete role on stage. Yet there were still arresting moments during the finale especially her deeply moving “Alles, alles.” It’s sad to contemplate that the years-ahead system of opera-planning means that the Met won’t see Goerke’s Brünnhilde for another three years!

Thirty years ago this fall, Levine conducted the first installment of the Otto Schenk production of the Ring which cemented his inevitability as a Wagner conductor at the Met. Except for a few Valery Gergiev-conducted Walküres, the Ring became always Levine and would have been so again for the Robert Lepage production had had his health not declined so precipitously.

He only conducted Rheingold and Walküre in that awkward, ill-fated production, so it struck me that by emphasizing big scenes from Siegfried and especially Götterdammerung Thursday’s concert was his way to finally complete that interrupted Ring. So perhaps Levine’s agenda was to achieve the Ende he required: it’s difficult to imagine him ever conducting even “bleeding chunks” of the Ring again, a bittersweet notion that suffused the evening.

Photo by Steve J. Sherman

  • Thanks for a great review as always, Christopher. I was taken back to memories of Goerke and Vinke singing Siegfried together in Toronto.

    • bobsnsane

      The details were simply delicious _
      no devil to be found !

  • Christine Goerke’s Facebook status 5/24:

    Yeah… Soooooo…. Just sang through bleeding chunks of Brünnhilde with James Levine and got all the wisdom thrown at me.


    • JohnTwinam

      Can’t wait for her master class at Glimmerglass!

  • very touching. wish i had been there. … hope someone has put this down for posterity… somehow.

    • also want to add that i think its downright mean that the met did not stream on sirius these last MET Concerts by Levine.

      If he deteriorates further these could be his final performances. since they were ALL sold out, and in the past that is the criteria (supposedly) upon which they based streaming the concerts.

      i am saddened by the decision not to honor Levine and his wide audience of fans (and paying Sirius members) by sharing these events.

      i certainly hope that the reason is that they were being recorded for future release. if not, then SHAME on the MET.

      • Signor Bruschino

        I get the feeling that Gelb has been doing everything possible to not be very gracious in Levines departure

        • Yes, no doubt that is why Gelb consented to a last-minute change of plans about Levine’s retirement and agreed to the maestro’s plan to try out a new treatment regime, even doing an interview for the New York Times about how delighted he was that Levine might be able to stay on with the Met longer than originally planned. That reeks of ungraciousness right there.

          Whereas calling an impromptu meeting of the orchestra just a few hours before they are going to play a new production of Elektra to break the news that you’re quitting the company, that’s the sort of behavior Emily Post would approve 100%.

          Doesn’t the massive cognitive dissonance required by your Gelbphobia sometimes feel a bit of a burden?

          • Signor Bruschino

            wow- ok, LaCieca, but I have actually in my years of posting given both sides of the argument. There is no question that the Met as an organization has shown very little ‘Levine’ fan-fare. All the ‘hosannas’ has come from the Met orchestra side on social media.

            This is VERY different from when Levine returned to the Carnegie Hall stage in 2013, with the concert being broadcast on Sirius, on the website, and being released on CD- maybe this concert will be released on CD, but the other two things didn’t happen.

            I’m really surprised at your post when I’m just pointing out facts.

            • Porgy Amor

              Signor Bruschino, my perception of the Met as an organization re: Levine is a little different. With the promotion of the HDs this season, for example, they trumpeted “performances led by James Levine and distinguished guest conductors” when he was only down for two of ten (and ended up doing one). Singers in their on-camera interviews in those are constantly prompted to praise him and talk about his influence on their careers. It was taken to absurd heights in 2015 when one of the women in Les contes d’Hoffmann (Morley) was asked to describe what it was like to sing with Maestro Levine conducting. She was never asked to talk about what it was like to sing with Yves Abel, who was leading the performance. I think the only mention of Abel’s name was at the very beginning of the broadcast. (Not that I’m making a case he was doing anything special and was terribly wronged, but he was there.)

            • armerjacquino

              I have no dog in this fight, but you can’t say ‘just pointing out facts’ about a post which started ‘I get the feeling’.

            • There is no question that the Met as an organization has shown very little ‘Levine’ fan-fare.

              The fact that Levine himself has steadfastly refused to do an atom of publicity or press for the Met for more than a decade now I suppose has nothing to do with this perceived lack of “fan-fare.”

              Why the fuck should the Met continue to bend over backwards for the sake of a music director who over the past six or seven years has missed more work than he has shown up for, who has deliberately obfuscated his actual medical condition which is directly relevant to his ability to perform his job, who has delayed and delayed a decision about his future with the company to the point that recruiting a successor has been complicated needlessly, and who, at a time when the Met is suffering big financial losses, will not even go so far as to allow the company to send out a fundraising letter over his signature?

              Oh, boo hoo hoo, they’re not kissing Jimmy’s ass quite passionately enough to satisfy your feels. I cannot imagine your pain.

            • There is no question that the Met as an organization has shown very little ‘Levine’ fan-fare.

              The HD broadcasts, whether they included Levine or not, have been a series of tributes to Levine. An amazing number of singers interviewed have been prompted to talk about Levine, whether he was conducting or not. Whenever his names is mentioned, it is with holy reverence. I honestly can’t see where you are coming from.

            • PCally

              Not to mention almost literally every interview gelb has given about the subject where he expressed his joy and enthusiasm (more or less) at having Levine on board.

            • PCally: Indeed. Whenever Gelb speaks publicly about Levine, he bows at his altar.

            • Levine wouldn’t do any publicity for the Met? Wow, that is truly shocking, both that he wouldn’t and that the Met didn’t figure out how to write it into his contract.

              SF has leveraged Luisotti hugely and smartly, establishing a special Amici di Nicola fund and lining up donors who love Luisotti himself or Italian opera in general.

            • Why, in fact, should Levine do publicity for the Met? From the time of the creation of the universe, the Met has existed to do publicity for Levine. Let’s try to maintain clarity in how a master/servant relationship works, shall we?

  • RosinaLeckermaul

    Supposedly there was a big gala farewell dinner for JL, friends and donors on the Fledermaus Act II set on the Met stage.

  • jrance

    Hmmm…I guess this concert was also given in the parallel universe, for CC’s description of the singing doesn’t correspond with what my companion and I were hearing.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      And what was that?

    • Gualtier M

      For one thing I felt that the Immolation Scene was the best thing all night.

      I was upstairs in the front balcony. The orchestra was way too loud -- I could hear Goerke’s middle and bottom but the top notes were there but buried under the orchestra. The tenor I could only hear his high notes, the middle was covered.

      The Rheingold Finale was okay but I have heard better from Levine and the Met Orchestra. The Ride of the Valkyries as a concert piece was okay but lacked momentum and speed. Sounded a bit scrappy. The Siegfried Duet was good but Goerke is less suited to this Brunnhilde than the other two. Her voice narrows and loses color at the top. However all the high notes were taken and several were held.

      Prologue Love Duet from Goetterdaemmerung was very well sung and Goerke’s voice filled out every phrase of the music -- both singers rocked in the finale. Immolation Scene was for me a triumph -- Goerke had the notes -- low and high -- but also has a rarer thing that is essential to a Wagnerian hochdramatisch sopran: a middle voice that has color, depth and weight and carries without forcing over the loudest orchestra. She also has variety of color. Brava!

      Very moving evening but this was not the Jimmy I remember from 5, 10, 20 or 25 years ago. Godspeed and farewell.

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        That’s the trouble with Goerke though isn’t it. She gets to A above the stave and suddenly her hitherto very large and rich voice becomes something else entirely. I think the review is taking a bit of an apologist stance I’m afraid -- it’s no surprise the final few pages of the Immolation Scene didn’t sound great, it is a punishing tessitura even for a soprano with a properly released voice. Similarly the Siegfried Brunnhilde is never going to be a good fit, even if she can be spine tingling in certain phrases. I wish she would stop singing dramatic soprano roles, in which I don’t think she will ever be satisfactory. She could be the most impressively sung Erda and Fricka ever.

        • oscar

          As opposed to Herlitzius who has an evenly produced wobble from top to bottom.

        • mercadante

          I’ve seen Goerke several times, including as Norma and Leonore in Fidelio. Her top does not always narrow. Some of her top B flats to C’s can be oceanic. I believe it’s the approach to the top note that determines how full her top will be rather than the note itself. Step-wise ascents allow her to carry the fullness up and so do intervals of a third to a fifth where she can launch off of a secure G or A to the top. Clean attacks, intervals larger than a fifth, top notes in phrases that sit in a particularly high tessitura, seem to presage thinner top notes.

          • la vociaccia

            She also has her worst tuning problems when she has to sing high notes that aren’t approached stepwise. Her soprano 2 in Mahler 8 had several disasters in that regard.

        • RosinaLeckermaul

          Certainly this was true of her not very good Turandot last fall. The voice narrowed where it needed to soar.

        • Gualtier M

          Oh I think her singing last night went beyond “satisfactory” and her stage presence was impressive too. Moedl didn’t have a great top, neither did a Waltraud Meier or Traubel. Let Goerke sing Fricka twenty years from now -- Jamie Barton has that role pretty well covered from what I hear.

          • armerjacquino

            Twenty years from now? Aged 67?

            • bobsnsane

              Placido redux.

        • Alex Baker

          Goerke should definitely commemorate next April 1 with a Facebook missive describing how she is withdrawing from all current commitments to devote herself to Fricka and Erda…

          • stevey


    • Maybe you were at a different venue?

  • williams

    Goerke is a mixed bag. Some thrilling moments but her voice, to my ears, curdles above the staff. That said there are few exponents of last night’s role I’d rather hear. The orchestra was loud (thank you) but didn’t impede the singers (at least from the second ring box we were in). The tenor had all the goods. Levine was mesmerizing. In spite of his fragility and wayward limbs I thought he gave a classic conductor’s account. The left foot, in spite of the brilliant Mr. Corwin’s relay, was as much a part of the gestural (used purposefully) language as the rest of the diminished maestro’s tools. It was not a subtle evening but I would have hated myself had I missed it.

  • JackJack

    I strongly disagree about the Immolation Scene. I thought it was clearly the best part of the night. Her voice had warmed up impressively at that stage.

  • Mountaine

    My friend and I were sitting in the upper balcony. Although the orchestra playing was wonderfully LOUD and FULL up there, and Levine’s poetry in this music was a pleasure to hear again (I really hate Luisi’s rushing through everything), the singers were very hard to hear, almost all the time. So although I would be thrilled to hear Goerke and Vinke together in the Ring before long, and although I felt they were giving really fine performances, I can’t comment on the details (boohoo). I was glad to be there for this historic event with Levine, and bravoed loudly, but overall I was disappointed with the musical experience.

    • RosinaLeckermaul

      Why were you cheering loudly if you thought it was a disappointing performance?

      • Mountaine

        That’s how much I honor the amazing legacy of James Levine.

  • Sempre liberal

    In addition to Gergiev, I recall Maazel’s conducting some MET Walkures a few years ago.