I heard the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in concert at Carnegie Hall on 5/26. There were many elements that drew me to the program, when I first read about it last fall: first, it was an all-Wagner program, and I am cray cray for Wagner. Second, the soprano was Christine Goerke, who I'd only heard once, many years ago, and has recently retooled her voice to Wagnerian proportions. And third, it was conducted by James Levine, who has a special way with Wagner and is in the sunset of his career.
I'll address these three topics separately.
The program consisted of excerpts from the Ring Cycle, the four-opera cycle that Wagner wrote between 1851 and 1874. Levine thoughtfully arranged the program in chronological order, in the order in which it happens in the cycle:
From *Das Rheingold*: entry of the gods into Valhalla (final scene)
From *Die Walkuere*: Ride of the Valkyries
From *Siegfried*: love duet (final scene)
From *Goetterdaemmerung*: dawn, duet, and Siegfried's Rhine journey
Siegfried's death and funeral march
Bruennhilde's immolation scene (final scene)
Wagner took a 12-year break in the middle of composing *Siegfried*, during which he wrote *Tristan und Isolde* and *Die Meistersinger*. *Tristan* is a revolutionary score, it marked a big step forward in Western classical music, and you can really hear the difference between the first two Ring operas and the second two. The first two are brilliant, but not necessarily innovative. And heard in concert, away from all the trappings of a theatrical performance, the music came across as rather kitschy! Which is not at all a bad thing, I have a hearty appetite for kitsch. But once they started the *Siegfried* excerpt, I was covered in chills for the first time that evening - - the orchestration and use of harmony are at a much higher level than in the other two operas.
One of the thrills was WATCHING the orchestra. You never get a chance to do this at the opera, you're always watching what's onstage. The harps were a special delight, and the *Rheingold* section featured SIX harpists playing the same damn thing. It was fun watching them all, in unison, go from low to middle to high to middle to low, etc, lurching forward and leaning back. Looked like this:
bloom-inna, blawm-inna, blem-inna, blink-inna, blem-inna, blawm-inna, bloom-inna, blem-inna, blawm-inna, blink-inna, blem-inna, blawm-inna...
First let me mention the other singer on the program, German tenor Stefan Vinke. He was very good: sturdy, bright, flavorful. All we require of a Wagner tenor is that he sing real loud and make it to the end. This guy did great. Though granted he only had about 40 minutes of singing, which is about halfway through the first act for your typical Wagner opera.
Goerke started her career singing Handel and Mozart and other what I would call full lyric roles. My only previous experience hearing her was as Madame Lidoine (the second prioress) in *Dialogues of the Carmelites* in 2003. She was very good but not spectacular. She's started what's essentially a new career as a Wagnerian soprano and is tearing the joint apart. The divine Diane Schoff was in a production of *Elektra* with her in 2014 and Diane raved about her, both as a singer and as a colleague. I listened to the radio broadcast of *Elektra* and was blown away by her singing, so I was eager to hear her in person singing Wagner.
I often describe the Chiara String Quartet as having the perfect balance of passion and precision. For a big-voiced opera singer, what you want is a balance of strength and subtlety. Goerke had plenty of both: she poured out a big sound when needed and was tireless, but she also sang with lyricism and line and wonderful attention to the text.
Levine was a wonder. He has a great love and understanding of this music, and obviously the orchestra has a deep rapport with him. I bet I heard five or six people say to each other during intermission or after the concert, "This is the last time we'll hear Jimmy conducting Wagner," or something like that. I hope they're wrong!