James Levine returns to the Metropolitan Opera podium

After the drama, comes the music.

Monday night, the Metropolitan Opera threw an opening night gala that will be mostly remembered for its offstage dramatics: a celebrity director who couldn’t oversee her staging of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” an online petition and subsequent march demanding the company dedicate the performance to gay Russians, protestors inside the house who held up the curtain with anti-Putin chants — all of this being watched by thousands of people outside in Lincoln Center plaza and in Times Square via giant HD video screens.

Tuesday night, with the controversies, cameras and celebrities gone, was supposed to be drama free — but just as the lights went down, a representative of the Met walked onstage and the nearly sold-out audience let out a collective grown. The fear was that James Levine, the Met’s music director of 37 years, would not be making his long-awaited comeback after two years of illness and recovery.

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Instead, the representative simply announced that tenor Matthew Polenzani was suffering from a cold but would still be singing.

Almost 4,000 people audibly sighed in relief.

Then the lights went down and Levine slowly rose from the orchestra pit, courtesy of a motorized wheelchair and rotating podium. For the first time since May 2011, he was back at the Met. The audience quickly rose and showered the 70-year old conductor with a standing ovation for almost two minutes.

Levine then slowly turned to the orchestra and raised his baton, leading his band through the four-minute overture of “Cosi fan tutte.” More applause followed this as the audience settled into a vintage Levine performance (his 2,443rd at the Met) of Mozart’s 1790 opera.

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Tempo was crisp but never strained, the phrasing of the melodies expert. As one listened to Levine’s energetic yet graceful conducting — and watched his impassioned gestures, which seem undiminished by time and ailments — the whole evening began to feel like a throwback to an earlier time at the Met.

If Monday night’s gala embodied the current Peter Gelb era — stagings by internationally famous directors, audiences papered with television and sports celebrities, and of course HD cameras everywhere — Tuesday night showcased the old Met: no celebs, no cameras, decidedly old-fashioned costumes and sets, and of course, Levine’s poof of hair, backlighted and wildly bobbing in the pit.

If the new Met tries hard to make opera relevant, Levine’s return in this 1996 production (a gift of Alberto Vilar, remember those days?) was a souvenir of the days when the Met used to simply try to make opera beautiful.


After the final notes and the curtain went down, it was back to the new realities. Following boisterous ovations for the singers (in particular, tenor Polenzani and soprano Susanna Philips) Levine did not appear on-stage, instead he simply turned his podium around in the pit and bowed his head as the audience cheered him loudly.

Maestro Levine is scheduled to conduct 23 more times this season, his “Cosi” on Oct. 2 will be broadcast on SiriusXM, and when he conducts the matinee on April 26, 2014 it will be broadcast on radio as well as in HD to movie theaters.


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