Monday, January 16, 2006

The year of Levine

Looking over my notices from the two half-seasons since the Met began its last winter break, one thing stands out. As the house conducting roster has been infused with more interesting young blood than it's seen in decades (meanwhile -- Rizzi, Santi, et al.: not missed) and as a massive overhaul of a long-underperforming symphony orchestra was supposed to eat into his energy, James Levine had a great 2005 here. From the Met Orchestra's terrific Das Lied von der Erde last January to the high points (Berg and Wagner) of their hit-and-miss latest Carnegie Hall afternoon, a remarkable proportion of the company's twelve-months' successes have been his.

He still presides for more evenings than anyone else, of course, and deserves credit even when not for building the remarkable orchestra. But by my count, three of the five annual local operatic highlights were such because of -- not merely with -- his conducting: Clemenza, Falstaff, and -- and I'm with Maury in reckoning this the event of the past year -- as great a performance of Cosi as I may ever see. (Sans Levine came Don Carlo and An American Tragedy.) Nor did any visiting conductor show off the Met Orchestra in some novel and remarkable glory, as Christian Thielemann so memorably did in 2001's Die Frau Ohne Schatten. (The much-praised Fabio Luisi I found too unsympathetic to the singers and unwilling to let the orchestra phrase; perhaps he'll show better after the long rehearsal of a new production.)

Levine has of course been conducting these three operas for decades. Has he changed?

Without a vertical comparison of broadcasts and in-house tapes, I don't think I can give anything like a complete answer. But it seems to me that while Levine has remained, in essence, who he is -- a conductor first interested in regularity and quality of sound, and therefore endlessly frustrating to listeners mostly listening for something else (dramatic effect, the ebb and flow of time, romantic refinement of gesture, and/or whatever) -- his maturity has, as it's done for many, allowed him to incorporate some amount of other, antithetical qualities into his work as well. The top-down architectural view he likes to take has come to embrace more and more life-giving detail and phrasing, making him, among other things, a great Mozartean. -- I now wish I hadn't skipped last February's unexcitingly-cast Figaros.

The recent New York Magazine profile of Levine doesn't, I think, shed much new light on him or his development, but it touches on both the recent Clemenza and Falstaff as well as more general matters. It's worth a read.

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I'm sure it reflects on my taste and manner of experiencing opera that the most memorable singers' performances of the year came on nights that I wouldn't count among an overall top five. Nevertheless I shouldn't let this sort of post go by without mentioning Marcelo Alvarez in Manon, Sondra Radvanovsky in Cyrano (which returns this month), and Giuseppe Filianoti in Lucia. They themselves were easily worth the price of a ticket.

1 comment:

  1. Alvarez in Manon was certainly an island of great in a sea of blah.

    The best evenings are so often more than the sum of their parts. Remember that totally boring Figaro, the premiere of the Miller production, with every star in the phone book?

    I wish the Cosi cast were the same one as earlier. Part of me is ready to buy standing room just to get another earful of Kozena.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.