A historic night at Carnegie, Levine and Met Orchestra together one last time

By Raymond Beegle
June 3, 2016

Stefan Vinke, far left; Christine Goerke, center; and, far right, the conductor James Levine, with the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall   (Photo: New York Times )

Stefan Vinke, far left; Christine Goerke, center; and, far right, the conductor James Levine, with the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall  (Photo: New York Times)

The MET Orchestra
Ring Cycle Highlights
Thursday, May 26th, 2016, Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall,
James Levine, Conductor
Christine Goerke, Soprano
Stefan Vinke, Tenor

One may consider every performance at historical Carnegie Hall an historical event, but tonight’s concert was especially so, as it was quite likely to have been the final performance of James Levine with the orchestra he loved and returned to greatness. His kindness to the musicians is well known, and their gratitude and love were displayed abundantly during these Ring Cycle excerpts.

The opening of The God’s Entrance into Valhalla was as opulent, dazzling, radiant, as this mind can conceive. A veritable tidal wave of sound filled the theater, and the luminous waves kept coming throughout this love fest between the conductor and his musicians.

There were, it seemed, two slighted guests, invited out of necessity to plump out the party. Both soprano Christine Goerke and tenor Stefan Vinke were placed out of the sightlines, and it seemed out of the concern of Maestro Levine, who without a cue or a nod in their direction, opened the floodgates of orchestral sound and sank these hapless hard working artists to the bottom of the Rhine. When it was audible, Christine Goerke’s voice showed the usual symptoms of prolonged over-singing: the lower, upper and middle registers had little to do with each other, and the quality changes were pronounced. The middle voice was especially lusterless and worn. This was true of the tenor Stefan Vinke as well. On occasion he volleyed a ringing high note, but otherwise his was a relentless struggle to be heard at any price, including the price of the beauty and health of his voice. Perhaps under better conditions these two straining artists might have fared better. They were placed far forward on the stage, outside the acoustical bell of the ceiling, which precluded the famous Carnegie Hall sonority enjoyed by the orchestra.

It was clear in hearing these various Ring highlights that Levine’s approach differed dramatically from that of Furtwängler, who, notwithstanding his use of rubato, unified the four operas through a relatively consistent tempo. Levine on the other hand opted for contrast. The Ride of the Valkyries, being inordinately fast produced a strong foil to the grandiose breadth of The Entry of the Gods. Furtwängler wrote in his essay The Ring, that these works, unlike Wagner’s other operas, had “…more a surface than a center, but how sensuously that surface is shaped.” This is perhaps the key to Levine’s success tonight, as well as his success as music director these many years. Under his baton the surface is always lustrous, glazed, sensuously shaped, whether he is conducting Verdi, Wagner, Berg, or Richard Strauss. Often precious little is to be found in the regions below. The affable music director never seems to stand in the center of the drama, but slightly aloof, self-possessed. The surface however, shines relentlessly, spectacularly, quite in keeping with, the polished nickel and glass ethos of this city. It accounts, along with his brilliance, for the many ovations James Levine received tonight. 

Photo credit: New York Times

Photo credit: New York Times

Raymond Beegle reviews classical music and opera for the New York Observer and Fanfare Magazine. For many years he was Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, the Classic Record Collector (UK), and also appeared on The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (CBS). As an accompanist, he has collaborated with Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese.  Currently Mr. Beegle serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music in New York City.