day: Bishop Hubbard (center) ordains four deacons at
the restored Cathedral.
Bishop [Howard J. Hubbard] and everybody wanted new
seats,” says Rev. William Pape, rector of the Cathedral of
the Immaculate Conception. Last Saturday, the landmark cathedral
was open for Catholic ceremony for the first time in more
than a year, for the ordination of four deacons. Attendees
sat in comfort in the cathedral’s reconstructed pews, which
were expanded to accommodate larger modern physiques. The
roomier seats and gently slanted backs were created from original
wood obtained from “retired” pews.
The ordination was also the first public view of the cathedral’s
meticulous, 15-month, $6 million interior restoration. After
decades of having its soaring vaulted arches, Beaux Arts Stations
of the Cross, and walnut woodwork dimmed by grime and deterioration,
the gothic-revival cathedral gleamed, and not just because
of its new lighting system. Every inch of the interior was
cleaned, repainted, and reappointed. “It’s magnificent, awesome,
it captures what was here 157 years ago,” enthuses Pape, a
leader of the restoration committee.
Listed on the Register of Historic Places, the cathedral is
the oldest in New York, and the third oldest in the country.
One of the most daunting tasks was to refurbish the interior’s
surfaces, including 60-foot-high ceilings and a plenitude
of decorative plasterwork. Decades of dirt, from the smoke
of 19th century whale-oil lamps to debris from the construction
of the Empire State Plaza, had to be carefully scraped away.
Color chips were analyzed to reproduce the original terra-cotta
colors—Pape describes a fortunate find when an old speaker
was removed from a wall, revealing an 8-inch patch of 1850s
paint—and paint formulas were expertly customized. The project
won an award from Historic Albany Foundation for excellence
in paint and plaster restoration. “I think it gives the community
a sense of pride to know that great love and care went into
this project,” says Pape.
A less noticeable, but ecclesiastically more important improvement
lay under a cloth: the altar’s new marble top, which replaces
the plywood that served for 28 years. After Vatican II, the
altar was moved closer to the congregation and reconfigured
to be a lower, more accessible “high altar,” requiring the
removal of a sculpture of St. John the Baptist from its brass,
bas-relief base. Crafted in France in 1852, the restored altar
table was configured again: St. John was returned to his rightful
place, and a sculpture of the blessed Katarina Tekawitha has
been added. “She looks like she’s always been there,” says
Pape of the new sculpture.
The cathedral’s towering stained-glass windows have been transformed
from sepia tone to celestial full color, and Pape says that
parishioners have been telling him that seeing the circa-1900
stations of the cross under new lighting is like seeing them
for the first time. The restoration also includes greater
handicap access, and all-new wiring and other amenities that
will help ensure the building’s preservation as a symbol of
parishioners who left during the restoration will come back,”
Pape emphasizes, “and that people who appreciate the beauty
of cathedrals and the fullness of the Catholic liturgy will
come to worship, that’s the important thing.”
almost repeated itself last Wednesday night (May 26). During
her days as a Manhattan hipster, my polite and affable mother
punched a woman at the Metropolitan Opera. She couldn’t stop
herself. The woman kept chattering to her companion in the
middle of a performance. Eventually my mother turned around
and punched her. The woman was silent for the rest of the
performance and afterward came up to thank my mother and apologize
for behaving in such a way. On a recent evening at a simulcast
of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold at the GE Theatre
at Proctors, I wanted to punch someone in the face, too.
I felt tormented like Alberich by the Rheinmaidens. I showed
up for the performance about 20 minutes early. My ticket said
7 PM, and so did the online listing, but on arriving I was
informed the show was really at 8 PM. So I waited. At the
end of the hour I was overjoyed to hear the opening strings
of Wagner’s masterpiece broadcast from Teatro alla Scala,
in Milan, Italy. But that joy didn’t last long. The small
and mostly elderly crowd didn’t have any idea of theater etiquette.
Cell phones flashed brightly in the crowd, people stomped
on the floor, and the usher used a blazing blue light to lead
latecomers to their seats; and then there was a transmission
error just as the Rheinmaidens began to sing. An error message
flashed across the screen. I really am cursed, I thought to
Johannes Martin Kraenzle as Alberich displayed a powerful
voice, and he sold his lust and torment, but it was easy to
be distracted from his performance by the wandering camera
work that would at times fade into random close-ups; it was
like your dad filming a high school play. The unfortunate
close-ups also exposed some of the production’s most annoying
quirks. Alberich’s makeup resembled that of Jack Nicholson’s
as the Joker—cheek scars and a puffy face—and thanks to the
extreme close-ups you could see where the makeup cracked.
The makeup work on Wotan and Loge was also quite distracting.
The camera work also zoomed in on the interpretive dancers
who splashed around in the Rhein—real water in pools around
the stage. Their work was acceptable at first, but when they
were used to represent Alberich’s magic helm or his throne
they were an unnecessary distraction.
Stephan Rugamer, playing Loge, absolutely stole the show.
He was devilish and inspired. He hit all the right notes.
When others stood stoically and delivered their lines, he
lingered in the corners, clearly plotting, and mockingly flirted
and frolicked with the dancers. His costume, an early-20th-century
suit covered in wax, was the cleverest bit of costume work
of the night. It seemed Loge was the only one allowed to breathe.
Wotan, played by superstar Rene Pape, was either stoic by
choice or simply kept on a chain by the director. He was commanding
as he strode around with his spear and double-breasted boardroom
suit, but his delivery was stiff.
It was conductor Daniel Barenboim and his orchestra that held
the work together. The music was perfect, and as it swelled
while Wotan haggled with the giants, I was captivated, nearing
a state of operatic ecstasy. I put the odd close-ups behind
me, the interpretive dancers out of my mind, the incoherent
costume and makeup work and even the fact that the ring—the
most powerful weapon in Wagner’s world—was represented by
what looked like Michael Jackson’s rhinestone glove. I was
That was, until a man in my row blew his nose fervently into
his handkerchief. I almost recovered from that as Wotan sang
of his beautiful new Valhalla, but then someone decided it
would be a good idea to roll what I can only assume was a
trash can through the back of the theater. Keys jangled, whatever
was being pulled rumbled and whoever was performing the task
seemed in no hurry to finish, as it killed a good portion
of the end of the opera. I wanted to cry.