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James Levine’s first night back at the Met: eyewitness report

Steve Rubin, publisher at Henry Holt and, long before that, a music writer on the New York Times in its glory days, has sent us this closeup account of the music director’s comeback last night.

steve rubin

Anyone who was present at James Levine’s comeback in the spring with the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall knows that there is nothing at all to fret about this cherished maestro other than his lack of mobility.  Last night, he returned to the opera house where he has conducted more than 2,500 performances to lead one of his specialties, COSI FAN TUTTE.

He was at the height of his powers, appearing from nowhere in a hydraulic lift and fashioning a performance of great buoyancy, elegance, beauty and tremendous verve. He clearly adores this piece, and has his band mesmerized into doing anything he wants. This was red-blooded Mozart, with a rhythmic vitality that was irresistible.

Would that the stage had followed suit. This production from the 90s is pretty in a generic way (my friend Suzanne called it “summer stock,” which is perfect.). The quartet of young lovers were all fine, but the opera really depends on the two troublemakers, Despina and Don Alfonso, to move the action along. Alas, neither Maurizio Muraro nor Danielle de Niese was successful. The former is a tired bass who lost his voice by the end of a very long evening; the latter mugged shamelessly and had a terminal case of the cutes, although she sang beautifully.

The star of the show for me was Matthew Polenzani, who was singing above a cold, but nevertheless was splendid. Ferrando fits him like a glove, much better than roles like Alfredo or Nemorino. His “un’aura amorata” was gorgeously phrased and sung. Susanna Phillips was a spunky Fiordiligi,who sang her fearsome arias fearlessly. All her voice lacks is character. Isabel Leonard is always interesting, and she was a lovely Dorabella. Rodion Pogrossov’s smallish voice is not ideal for the Met, but he threw himself into Gugliemo with abandon.

As is usual these days, the interval was interminable, stretching a long evening unnecessarily.

Welcome home Jimmy.


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  1. Oh! I see this on the first. I pray Matthew is well and singing.
    This opera is interminable for me-not just the intervals. I have never managed to stay awake at any performance. I hope Matthew and Jimmy will do the trick for me.

  2. Samuel McCoy says:

    One correction: the tenor aria referenced above is “un’ aura amorosa” and I greatly look forward to hearing Mr. Polenzani in the role!

  3. Somebody with some courage has emboldened me to add that I also find this opera interminable, and would never go to it again. It probably is Mozartian genius, and the fault is mine, but what a bore. Let me add that I love Mozart, and most of his other operas, but you can also put the Abduction on my no need to see again list.

    Great maestro Levine is back. Listening to Luisi conduct Troyens, and the Ring, I thought very competent, but he’s no Levine.

    Does this small review mean that this august blog will now have someone like this writing about opera from NYC, rather than the opervores, or whatever the high school newspaper writers call themselves?

    • I surely hope so.

    • To me the operavores paint a much more vivid picture of their evening than this fellow does. Sorry the intermission was too long; perhaps he should bring a magazine, or catch up on his facebook.

      • Vivid-about what? Really sophmoric perceptions of opera beginners that lost whatever ‘charm” it may have had after the first one. They are also in such a contrast to the high minded tone of this enterprise, and I’ve always suspected that they had something over on Mr. Lebrecht, but at this point despite the many negative comments about them he persists and I suspect stubbornness. You don’t prefer some actual informed remarks about the performance?
        Why not get some interesting writers and have a variety, if you’re going to do it at all.

        Yes, I’m sick of people complaining about the length of intermisssions (other than the mishaps of the machine) There are always lines at the Met facilities, it’s nice to take your time, maybe have a snack or drink, be refreshed for the next act. I think these people are unable to let themselves go, and are always concerned about train schedules, or what they have on tomorrow.

      • Don’t agree. The gent above seems to me to know something about music. And the intermissions ARE too long. Gives the Met a chance to charge even more people $6 for a small bottle of water and God knows how much for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

  4. Well, I am now emboldened to say that the I can never ever get to the end of any Mozart opera, except Magic Flute. Yet I am an opera lover, esp. Wagner. I am constantly told by my husband that Mozart is perfect but I cannot stand it.

    • Join the club. First lifetime free.

      • Huh! “Club, Lifetime”-Too cryptic for me.

        As to the other comment-Wagneritie that I am-it is often said that there are Wagnerities and there are opera lovers

        While I have no interest in Cosi, or Abduction, Don Giovanni, Nozze even Idomeneo for me are greatness, as to perfect-what does that mean? Flute is a charmer in its way, but I know people who adore Mozart operas, including Cosi-who can’t stand Flute

        It’s not a question of accounting for taste-it’s a matter of having explanations for your judgements-this is not simply preferring one flavor over another

        • Theodore McGuiver says:

          Agree totally concerning Idomeneo. What a shocker. I stuck out the first act of Opera North’s production in Manchester in 1985 or so and vowed never to be in the same room as this piece ever again. I enjoy and admire the others but reserve the emotion ‘love’ for other things…

          I like this chap Rubin, by the way. Any chance of reading some more of him?

          • @TMcG:
            You misread Marshall’s comment. He is saying “Idomeneo is greatness.” Mozart liked it, too; wrote it in Munich and considered it his best opera. You might want to try Act 1 again, after a 28-year break. There are three acts to hear in all. Try the recording with Domingo, Vaness, Bartoli, Terfel, et al., on DG. That’s the one with hair on its chest. The music is sublime. And what do they know in Manchester anyway?

          • Theodore McGuiver says:

            @sdReader: You’re right, I see it now. Marshall unfortunately puts an Oxford comma after Cosi but no semicolon after Abduction, so the meaning of his sentence was not clear. That said, I should still have taken more time to decipher it if I didn’t find it clear.

            I may have to be reacquainted with Idomeneo professionally; in which case, I’ll take your tip. Thanks.

        • “Theodore McGuiver says: You’re right, I see it now. Marshall unfortunately puts an Oxford comma after Cosi but no semicolon after Abduction”

          Please-you just didn’t read carefully, as it was clear to everyone else. However in a more formal setting I could have been more precise, and set off the last 3 mentioned from the first 2. But if you were reading it that way, why no comment on DG and Nozze?
          I think as soon as you saw that name , Idomeneo, you were so eager to voice your disdain for it that you rushed ahead. By the way, even I, no fan of the first two works, would never say I couldn’t “stand to be in the same room.” Both have beautiful music, great arias, I just wouldn’t want to sit through entire performances, again. After all we’re speaking of Mozart.

          But the important thing is to give Idomeneo another listen. Hardly a great favorite of mine-but didn’t some one say it was the greatest, or among the greatest of the opera seria genre.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            I find Idomeneo fantastic, much better than Clemenza. It’s also much more difficult to pull of because of its richness and complexity. The Levine is probably the best of the recent efforts, even if his Ilia is poor, and Domingo cannot sing the “big” Fuor del mar, which is much more fun. You should also try the first Colin Davis, with wonderful performances from George Shirley and Margherita Rinaldi, but with a tenor Idamante, not an ideal solution.

    • James Brinton says:

      Sometimes it’s just the hind-brain at work. Brahms’ violin concerto makes me very uneasy and sometimes vaguely nauseous. Intellectually, I know it’s a good piece, but my body doesn’t want to listen to it. No other Brahms work has this effect on me.
      Go figure.
      BTW, I have heard of other works having similar effects on other people.

  5. Please keep Steven Rubin instead of those groupie-bloggers.

  6. I am one of those people who adore Mozart, except perhaps for the Magic Flute, which I find weird. I have exactly the opposite reaction to Wagner. I strongly dislike the ring cycle, and Tristan and Parsifal even more. My reasons are those of most Wagner-haters over the decades. I can’t really rationalize my attitude; I think one’s taste in music is to a large degree irrational. I’d rather listen to Monteverdi or Janacek or Handel than Wagner; anyone but Wagner. There it is. De gustibus non disputandum est.

  7. Here is another well-written review of the event: .

  8. Nice to read this review, but I have trouble putting my faith in any critic who misspells titles of opera arias (especially famous ones). If there is any doubt, why not take the time to look it up?

  9. says:

    Re: Steve Rubin. I’m 70 years old and have been reading Times reviews since the 1960′s and never came across him there. When. exactly, were the “glory days”? I always thought they were at the Herald-Tribune when Paul Henry Lang, Virgil Thomson, Arthur Berger, and Paul Bowles reviewed concerts.

    • Your memory has let you down. I have a sheaf of Steve Rubin’s Times articles before me. A dozen of the best interviews were published in book form.

      • Daniel Farber says:

        You haven’t really answered my question, sir. WHEN did Mr. Rubin write for the Times in its “glory” days as you put it? Did he write criticism? Or was he a writer of arts-news stories, interviews, “specials”?

  10. harold braun says:

    Bravo!!!!Mazel tov on your recovery,Maestro!!!

  11. Valerie Watts says:

    I agree that one can spend a long boredom-stifling evening with many Mozart operas (excepting Giovanni) but cannot believe any real opera-lovers are not transported at intervals by the sheer beauty and heavenly genius of this composer. And is this not true of many great opera composers? We sit through unexciting sections to be taken to the peaks of their talent.

  12. I subjected myself to a MET/Levine COSI FAN TUTTE years ago on the recommendation of Richard Strauss, for whom it was the perfect opera. It was just relentlessly dull …and I have been ashamed of the limits of my musical taste ever since, though sitting in the back of the upper balcony didn’t help. But take me to Gotterdammerung or Die Frau ohne Schatten and I’m on the edge of my seat to the end.

  13. Gonout Backson says:

    I must be a complete freak, since I can easily switch my mind to any of the aforementioned, depending on the day. As for Mozart, from Abduction down, I only don’t care for Clemenza, which often sounds as it has been written by someone else. The only real problem being that you rarely hear these pieces as they should be done: text, cast, tempos. The hardest case is, of course, Don Giovanni, where they practically never play what Mozart really wanted : the Prague version, not the usual Prague/Vienna salad, the “fast” tempos not absurdly fast, and the “slow” tempos not painfully slow. I, for one, am still waiting for it.

    • Theodore McGuiver says:

      It won’t be easy to find a good Donna Elvira if she won’t get to sing Mi Tradi…

      • Gonout Backson says:

        Even if she’s out of tune for most of it anyway… But that’s why Mozart had to write the bloody thing (a fantastic concert aria BTW, but nothing to do with the character) : to please a primadonna.

        • Theodore McGuiver says:

          True. It’s a shame that the end of DG has to turn into ‘Seville’s Got Talent’ just before the finale. Those two arias really hold up the action.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            You mean Non mi dir? But most of the second act is dramatically useless. Da Ponte put it together to have two acts, because the original Bertati had one, but we could go directly from the ball ruckus – to the cemetery, without losing anything dramatically. Unfortunately, Mozart wrote glorious music to it.

            But there’s a difference, or even two, between Non mi dir and Mi tradi : first, Mozart wrote Non mi dir because he WANTED to, and he wrote Mi tradi, because he HAD to. Second, Non mi dir fits perfectly Donna Anna’s character. Mi tradi turns the Elvira mezzo-carattere he wrote for Prague into a fake tragic primadonna, quite similar to Anna. And the whole balance of the piece goes out of the window.

            Moreover, Elvira’s aria is part of a bigger structure, beginning after the Sextet : no Il mio tesoro, no A pieta signori, the absurd duetto Zerlina/Leporello (it would be a glorious peak for an Anfossi, but it’s on a markedly lower level than the rest of the score), and then the Mi tradi as a reaction to all this. Of course, almost no one does it that way…

  14. The first unforgettable opera I heard in my life was Wagner’s Tristan at the Met, conducted superbly by James Levine in 1980 or 1981! I went along thanks to generously donated tickets for music students at Manhattan School, where I was studying viola with Lillian Fuchs. This opened up a whole new awesome
    world of music and sound for me. I’m very thankful for this and other similar experiences, which have stood me in good stead as an orchestral musician playing operas sung on concert-hall stage, excerpts as part of symphonic concerts and in the pit.

  15. There is a wall between the Met and the public that reminds me of the old days of the Kremlin. For instance, why is there often interminable intermissions? Other houses do not have this. Is it mechanical failure, antique equipment, problems with personnel? Everybody just shrugs. Odd.

  16. Daniel Farber says:

    When was the NY Times music criticism in its “glory days”? Perhaps it was before 1960. When did Mr. Rubin write for them? I always thought the glory days in NY music criticism occurred at the Herald Tribune when Paul Henry Lang, Virgil Thomson, Arthur Berger, and Paul Bowles were writing. Respected music historians and composers tend to know more about music than “others”.

  17. According to several reliable sources, James Levine has not conducted “more than 2500 performances” at the Met, but fewer than 2450 of them “only”, though the actual number is still mightily impressive.
    On a not-too-closely related subject of an operatic superstar’s recent performance in New York, I strongly recommend this one: .
    Please enjoy responsibly!

  18. Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    De gustibus non disputandum est. True. I have read all comments here, and can recognize a little bit of myself in each. Development of new business this year prevents me from visiting the MET in New York – I would have loved to attend Cosi, Falstaff, and Wozzeck under James Levine! I should be able to catch a performance through radio or internet. It is great for the MET, and countless opera and music lovers, to have him back on the podium or in the pit May he be among us for many years to come. That said, I keep hoping that the MET is also preparing itself for the post-Levine future (which is more than keeping The List Of Possible Successors in a drawer). A conductor who has worked with hundreds of singers through 40 years is unique, and I hope that when the day comes, James Levine’s legacy will be able to be preserved and developed in every way possible, not least by a musician who can fill the enormous shoes in which (s)he will step. For now, irrespective of one’s musical tastes and preferences, I am happy for those who will be able to go to the MET on a night when Jimmy is in the pit. Hopefully, I will be one of the lucky ones as well, in the 2014-15 season. As for my preference: as long as the opera is long and the music gorgeous, I will be happy ; -)

  19. According to quite a number of comments Mozart’s operas have failed in many ways.
    They seem particularly too long and too dull.
    Maybe one should improve them ?
    Nifty one hour versions perhaps ?
    Maybe a major contemporary genius ( Philip Glass ? ) could work on the music…

    Mr .Rubin,whose above review I find a regrettably shallow piece of reviewing,full of cliches,short on any interesting insight about the work or any informed comments on singing in general, well,he could review the new revised 60 minutes versions then .
    The intermission would be only 5 minutes then, that might suit him…

    • Gonout Backson says:

      I’m certainly not discussing anyone’s tastes (gentlemen don’t discuss these, just as they don’t discuss facts), but when someone finds Cosi “relentlessy dull”, and then finds a thrilling relief in Die Frau ohne Schatten (which, to be sure, I adore), it must mean Mozart wasn’t his thing to begin with.

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