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Opening day: Bishop Hubbard (center) ordains four deacons at the restored Cathedral.

Photo: Nate Whitchurch


‘The 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 the sacred.

“That 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.”

—Ann Morrow


Broadcast Blues

History 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 myself.

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 transported.

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.

—David King

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