In a stunning yet not totally unexpected late season announcement, the Metropolitan Opera declared that its long-time artistic leader James Levine, with the company since 1971, would finally stand down as music director at the end of the 2015-16 opera season. Health problems have visibly ravaged Levine over the past few years, leading to complaints of uneven performances, unreliable direction, and occasional withdrawals from big-ticket assignments. But for anyone who heard Levine’s last productions in the house earlier this spring, his departure leaves much to be lamented. In any case he is not really going. With no replacement waiting in the wings, Levine has been promoted to “Music Director Emeritus” and will continue to conduct productions and work with young artists. The announcement left ambiguity over the future of the concert series by the Met orchestra, an ensemble Levine has raised to a truly world class standing over the past few decades. Of the three concerts booked for Carnegie Hall’s venerable stage, Levine conducted two (with his “emeritus” status already noted in the program), including last night’s all-Wagner concert featuring excerpts from the Ring of the Nibelung. Esa-Pekka Salonen has been announced as the conductor of next year’s Met concerts, so the Wagner extravaganza may well be Levine’s last.
It is true that at times Levine’s gestures lacked their past precision and subtlety. One could say that the orchestra’s radiant performance occasionally plodded along, with the musicians perhaps responding more to their long and deservedly celebrated experience playing Wagner’s music than to what they were seeing on the podium. The opening orchestral excerpts did reveal the orchestra in the fine form that it owes so much to its maestro. Levine’s program introduced “The Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla” with a thunderous playing of the leitmotif associated with Alberich’s curse. The piece then opened up into glorious harmonies the captured the pomposity of the dramatic moment. Then came the famous “Ride of Valkyries,” played with a steady tempo that never reached into the realm of the histrionic. The second part featured Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Death March, both delivered in vivid character with each and every note pollinated by careful deliberation.
Vocal artistry commanded the final selection of the concert’s first part and the opening and final selections of the second part. Both halves of the concert featured the latest Wagnerian discovery: the already much celebrated dramatic soprano Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde. In the first part she sang that character’s awakening in Act III of Siegfried, followed by the duet with the title character, sung by the sturdy tenor Stefan Vinke. Part II featured the duet in the prologue of Gotterdammerung and ended with the Immolation Scene. Goerke has been appearing sequentially in all three Brunnhilde parts, most recently in Washington as a stand-in for Catherine Foster in the Walkure installment of that city’s Ring. The voice rests on a solid, composed middle register that supports both strong chest singing and allows a platform for the role’s treacherous high notes. At times the technique was visible in a way that detracted from the higher range dramatic effects, but the overall impression was that we are witnessing the birth of a stunning Brunnhilde, one of maybe four or five singers working today who can deliver the part more than credibly. Vinke’s Siegfried seemed a bit tested by the orchestra and at times the voice had an unattractive leathery quality. But very often it provided a strong romantic partner in rapturous duet. He may yet rise from his Wagner singing in smaller German houses to an international career of some standing. The evening’s most lasting impression, however, was the departure of Maestro Levine from his principal role. This may well have been his last Wagner conducting. The legacy will live on.
Paul du Quenoy