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Last updated: September 25, 2013 5:59 pm
Most of us had given up on James Levine. Sadly. In 2011 he conducted what threatened to be his last performance at the Met, the company he had served in a staggering total of 2,442 performances. Then, after suffering numerous ailments, accidents and surgeries, he vanished. But there he was on Tuesday, blissfully shaping Così fan tutte.
Although he is now confined to a wheelchair that rotates, rises and falls with the press of a button, he seems more energetic, more focused than ever. To say that his return at 70 was victorious would be a preposterous understatement. When a spotlight picked him out at the start of the evening, the audience mustered a standing ovation worthy of Callas, Milanov and Tebaldi combined.
In turn, he guided a performance notable for propulsion, proportion, warmth and uplift. The orchestra played for him with inspired virtuosity, and, under his prodding, a sextet of unequal singers came together as a sensitive ensemble.
Levine’s Mozart is not, never was, the sort that warms a purist’s cockles. This maestro favours romanticised grandeur in the 4,000-seat house; forget period niceties. Cadenzas are minimal, trills and appoggiaturas scarce. In context it somehow matters little.
Lesley Koenig’s staging, created in 1996 and now reheated by Robin Guarino, avoids interpretive adventure yet reinforces wit, style and logic. Michael Yeargan’s seaside décors frame the drama fluidly and elegantly.
The cast was dominated by Matthew Polenzani who, even with a cold, sang Ferrando’s three difficult arias with astonishing ease, refinement and urgency. Susanna Phillips, his florid Fiordiligi, encountered technical problems at the outset (“Come scoglio”) but redeemed herself later (“Per pietà”). Isabel Leonard exerted sophisticated charm as Dorabella, modestly seconded by Rodion Pogossov as Guglielmo. Maurizio Muraro boomed buffo bluster as Alfonso, while Danielle de Niese magnified soubrette indulgence as Despina.
Peter Gelb, über-impresario at the Met, recently told The New York Times that Levine “may be the greatest opera conductor in history”. That, of course, is high hyperbole. Still, Levine deserves the image of a great conductor. He proved it, yet again, on this delirious occasion.
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