Nobody at Carnegie Hall last night could recall a Wagner concert so gigantic, so thrilling, or so special: Special, particularly because of James Levine’s presence on the podium, still using a motorized wheelchair, but leading with full force, temperament and accuracy in what might just be his valedictory contact with the Ring Cycle. In addition, excitement was very high awaiting soprano Christine Goerke’s first New York foray into the role of Brünnhilde, and for the tenor Stefan Vinke, who has wowed Bayreuth with his Siegfried. And of course, there is the phenomenal Met Orchestra.

James Levine © Hiroyuki Ito | The Metropolitan Opera
James Levine
© Hiroyuki Ito | The Metropolitan Opera

Each of the operas was touched upon, in what used to be referred to as “bleeding chunks.” There were four purely orchestral highlights, opening with a majestic Entry of the Gods into Valhalla from Das Rheingold (complete with six harps on stage and clarinets instead of Rhinemaidens), the final chord on a whopping Carnegie-worthy crescendo. The Ride of the Valkyries was practically visible, the strings whipping through the air, the galloping trombones rousing, the piccolo solo leading perfectly into the big restatement of the Ride on the impeccably tuned horns, the entire five minutes working its way into true mania. In the program’s second half, the orchestra gave us the river’s flowing, surging and ebbing thrillingly in the Rhine Journey, and Siegfried’s Funeral March, taken at an utterly funereal pace, managed both grandeur and solemnity, with the grumbling bass giving way to the gleam of the Sword motif, a beacon of heroism amidst the laden grief. In those two excerpts, Levine seemed as if he was merely listening to the orchestra he created, all the while bathing in the sound and loving it.

Christine Goerke © Hiroyuki Ito | The Metropolitan Opera
Christine Goerke
© Hiroyuki Ito | The Metropolitan Opera

And the singing! So few singers live up to their hype – this one’s missing a trill, that one’s voice is smaller in person, the third tires easily – but not Christine Goerke, now arguably the finest Wagnerian soprano in the world. She and the “unknown” Mr Vinke were faced with an evening of epic singing and both came through. The first half of the program ended with Brünnhilde’s awakening and the final duet from Siegfried. Ms Goerke’s voice rang out through the hall, rich, grand and perfectly focused. The voice has become quite handsome over the past few years and has grown in size as well and she continues to grow in stature as an artist. She expressed amazement after her awakening, then outrage and eventually love for Siegfried, delineating each change with shading and attention to the text, all the while singing with unspoiled intonation and huge top notes. Mr Vinke came close to proving her equal. He is a true Heldentenor: in all of the vocal numbers, Levine showed no mercy to the singers – the orchestra was unchained. But this Siegfried was loud and clear, with no trouble above the staff and long phrases. And startlingly, he joined his Brünnhilde on the final high C of their duet, bringing the audience to its feet. (The couple sealed it with a kiss.)

At the interval, many were wondering if they would ever hear such an ideal performance again, but the Prologue duet from Götterdämmerung, which lays many a tenor low, was again a great display of singing from both soloists, the couple enjoying one another’s enthusiasm. Then Vinke intoned Siegfried’s dying words sensitively, and that, of course, led into the Funeral March, which led seamlessly into the Immolation Scene. Again Ms Goerke rose to the occasion tirelessly, singing with warmth, nobility and majesty. The final musical conflagration was met with wild enthusiasm, again bringing the audience to a standing ovation that lasted for a quarter of an hour.

James Levine and the Met Orchestra in Carnegie Hall © Hiroyuki Ito | The Metropolitan Opera
James Levine and the Met Orchestra in Carnegie Hall
© Hiroyuki Ito | The Metropolitan Opera

Suffice it to say that the Met Orchestra did not misplace a note or a gesture, and that Maestro Levine’s tempi for his singers were absolutely apt within this concept. I suspect this sort of rarer-than-hen’s-teeth concert will be remembered for some time: I hope it was recorded by one of the record companies. The rest of the world should hear it as well.

*****