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given his recent precarious health, but it proved a surprising triumph, one that may cause some to question why he’s withdrawn from next season’s series of Carnegie concerts and the new Der Rosenkavalier at the Met.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