Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Met season ahead, part I -- the conductors

Perhaps the greatest performance -- operatic or not -- of the James Levine era here was the Met Orchestra concert of April 29, 2001. Renee Fleming, Olga Borodina, Marcello Giordani, and Rene Pape were soloists that afternoon in an account of Verdi's Requiem still ringing in the ears of those who were there. (All those I've talked to, anyway.) As previously mentioned, Levine, not long upon his own brush with mortality, will lead another performance of that piece next month, with a lesser cast but more specific occasion -- the commemoration of Pavarotti's death.

Tickets to this event will be assigned by a drawing; entries are being accepted now through next week. Despite the early (5PM) start, it should be something.

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Levine also conducts what looks to be the event of the 2008-2009 season: the 125th Anniversary Gala recreating legendary productions of the past. He will also lead part of Opening Night -- less than a month from now -- and some or all performances of just three other things: Damnation of Faust, Gluck's Orfeo, and of course the Ring, which I suppose puts him up to six productions plus galas and three Carnegie Hall concerts. Regrettably, no Mozart operas.

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Other welcome returns are led by Jiři Bělohlávek, whose 2007 Jenůfa was (after some initial roughness) intoxicatingly vital, the most memorable guest-conducting stint I've heard since Christian Thielemann's work on Die Frau ohne Schatten. (Incidentally, the next season's highlight may much depend on whether Fabio Luisi has the pull to get not only Strauss' music but Wernicke's production for Frau revived uncut.) This time Bělohlávek both teams up again with Karita Mattila for Onegin and leads another Czech piece -- Rusalka -- with Renee Fleming. Neither should be missed.

Two others are back in multiple engagements (not counting Opening Night). Marco Armiliato's in Lucia, La Rondine, and Adriana Lecouvreur, and Maurizio Benini in Elisir and Cenerentola. Both Italians are familiar to Met audiences: the former rarely inspiring but always professional, the latter poor to start but showing better in recent years.

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But the season's most notable podium news is its spate of debuts. Scheduled, in order, are Mikko Franck (Salome), Daniele Callegari (Gioconda), Alan Gilbert (Doctor Atomic), Paolo Carignani (Traviata), Daniel Barenboim (Tristan), Lothar Koenigs (Don Giovanni), Riccardo Frizza (Rigoletto and Trovatore), and Pietro Rizzo (Cav/Pag). Apart from old eminence Barenboim (whom I've never much liked in anything but Wagner) and the New York Philharmonic's boss-in-waiting Gilbert, the debutants are relatively young and unknown here. How this new blood does will determine much of the season's success.

Given the uncertainty, it's hard to say how much other, unused conductors will be missed. Among the returnees, I do think Asher Fisch remains as underappreciated as ever, engaged only for the kids' Magic Flute, while the only real disappointment -- Frédéric Chaslin, often dull but blessed with a terrific cast in Boheme -- might have been better-fit for the opera originally scheduled in that spot, Manon (it became Boheme when Netrebko's pregnancy forced her cancellation).

And who's not happy that Placido Domingo's now singing, not conducting in Adriana Lecouvreur? He remains as fine onstage as he is amateurish in the pit.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.