When James Levine’s tangled halo of white hair was picked up by the spotlight shining down over the orchestra pit at the May 9 performance of Die Walküre, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the audience roared with pleasure and relief. With good reason. Levine’s bad back and other health woes had forced him to pull out of multiple events he was scheduled to conduct, including one recent performance of this opera, the second in the Ring cycle. But there were no signs of diminished vigor or control on that evening.
On the contrary, he elicited from the orchestra and the stellar cast an exceptionally rich, nuanced realization of Wagner’s immensely demanding masterpiece. Jonas Kaufmann’s intense, emotionally wrenching Siegmund awakened the passion in Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Sieglinde; Bryn Terfel’s brooding Wotan and Stephanie Blythe’s formidable Fricka, carved as if from a piece of mighty granite, brought utmost conviction to their moral and marital argument; and Deborah Voigt, who on opening night had stumbled and fallen, managed to negotiate the enormous planks of the massive set and utter her wild cries of jubilation and grief. Levine’s mastery—the subtlety, energy, and intelligence of his musicianship—was everywhere in evidence and generated a special current of feeling that seemed to course through the whole house: the feeling of gratitude for a man who had found in himself the strength to conduct so brilliantly and, beyond this, gratitude for the spectacular gifts of the performers, and beyond this still, gratitude for the existence of the work of art itself.
An achievement of this magnitude has a mysterious power to affirm human worth in the face of humanity’s manifest and crushing defects, defects that the composer himself shared in egregiously full measure. I had thought to write something here about Wagner’s vicious anti-Semitism and about the playful attempt by my Wagner-loving Jewish friends to counter its poisonous effects by standing out on the balcony during the intermission and dining on whitefish salad and bagels. In his autobiography, Mein Leben, Wagner himself expressed surprise that many of his most ardent admirers and champions were Jews. But in the charmed space of this particular opera, the space defined by what Wagner termed “deeds of music brought to sight,” the composer’s loathsome personal failings seemed to belong to a different conversation.
Die Walküre is arguably the greatest of Wagner’s works and, with a few other transcendent works such as Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Verdi’s Don Carlo, among the greatest of all operas ever written. Figaro and Don Carlo both have a resonating historical dimension: like Shakespeare’s Henriad, they ambitiously situate themselves at the critical juncture between two worlds, one dying, the other struggling to be born. But the ambition of Die Walküre, and the cycle of which it is part, is still …