Levine’s Met journey comes to an end with memorable Wagner
The musical story of the season—if not the last several seasons—has finally reached its denouement. James Levine’s decade of health struggles, his recent abortive comeback, and his even more recent and rapid reversal have been front-page news in the American music world for some time. As inspiring as it was to watch his resurgence three years ago, his struggles during what has proven to be has final year at the Metropolitan Opera only added to the financial and artistic trials already assailing the company.
Thursday evening provided an opportunity for a celebratory valediction: already holding the title of “Music Director Emeritus,” Levine led the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in an emotional performance of excerpts from Wagner’s Ring.
Wagner’s music has of course been an important part of Levine’s career, and on this particular occasion it seemed almost too appropriate that the concert began with the closing scene of Das Rheingold, the “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla.” To hear his orchestra play this music on an open stage, out of the confines of the pit, is hair-raising. From the stirring whirr of strings and gallop of brass at the opening to the stately majesty of the closing bars, the powerful sound of the orchestra that Levine built during his long tenure was fully displayed, even if his direction occasionally felt listless.
The “Ride of the Valkyries,” from Act III of Die Walküre, was a similarly thrilling experience. There was raggedness here and there, as the music lacked the clarity of vintage Levine. What it had, though, was all the force and imaginative energy of his great performances, presenting chilling winds and hints of terror in the violins’ sting at the opening.
If it were possible to upstage Levine on a night like this, Christine Goerke might have done so. Fresh off a last-minute substitution in the Washington National Opera’s Ring Cycle, the soprano appeared as Brünnhilde in Thursday’s selections, beginning with the love duet from the end of Siegfried. Following the orchestra’s painting of her character with flowing warmth, Goerke unveiled an instrument of enormous power and rich tone, capable of competing with the MET Orchestra even in concert.
Her partner, Stefan Vinke, was not always so readily audible, but proved formidable in his own right. As with many heldentenors, there was a slight weariness to his sound in the upper-middle voice, yet his top notes rang beautifully, especially in his impassioned cries of “Sei mein!” Together they gave a thoroughly convincing account of the duet, with Goerke ranging between soft trepidation and urgent, beaming excitement, finally bursting into breathless joy.
The two resumed at the top of the second half with a loving performance of the dawn duet from the Prologue of Götterdämmerung. In “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” the orchestra featured sumptuous string playing, creating thick folds of sound and a gloriously rippling portrayal of the Rhine’s sun-flecked surface.
Vinke sang with reserved dignity in his last brief appearance in the moments before Siegfried’s death, leaving the stage as the music segued into a shining and majestic funeral march.
Proceeding without pause, Levine led a stunning performance of the Immolation Scene, which Goerke approached with gritty resolve. The mix of fluidity and power in her voice is extraordinary, producing a radiant sound that shone brilliantly over the harrowing power of the orchestra. And yet some of her most ravishing moments were those of quiet introspection, such as the breathtaking whisper of “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!” After such a gripping preview, it seems almost unfair that we in New York have to wait two years or more to hear her complete this cycle.
Through it all, the Met orchestra was sublime; the shining beauty of the violins in the final bars could almost bring one to tears —to say nothing of the ensuing celebration, during which Levine went about the stage shaking every hand that he could reach. This was almost certainly the last time we will hear him conduct the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, quite possibly the last time we’ll hear him conduct this repertoire, and, if recent history is any guide, one can’t take future Levine appearances for granted. Though this concert may not have closed the book on him entirely, it would be hard to write a better ending to a legendary career.