When James Levine announced that he’d be returning to the Metropolitan Opera in the fall of 2013, not everyone believed him. Levine’s recent years have been filled with injuries, cancellations, operations and bad luck, and he’d been absent from the Met for two full seasons. But return he did on Tuesday night, the second of the Met’s new season, in a wheelchair, via a motorized platform, to conduct Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.” And although I had to leave the show early, which disqualifies me from writing a traditional review, I can say that for the two-thirds of the evening I saw, Levine was the best thing in it. No worries here about ensemble, about coordination, about energy in the pit; it felt as if someone is back in charge.
Yet the evening as a whole seemed curiously subdued. Levine, of course, got a standing ovation when he appeared, but even that was over more quickly than one might have expected (71 seconds, according to the AP); and only the conducting staved off a sense of routine, both on stage and in the house. Lesley Koenig’s now-familiar production offers a lot of surface sparkle but doesn’t encourage anyone involved to dig very deep. Susanna Phillips’s Fiordiligi was a case in point: it was very well sung, but didn’t offer much that was new in terms of ideas, acting, or characterization. That’s asking too much, you might say, when someone sings it well; but really, it can be so much more.
If you grade on a curve, you’d award the Met points for the fact that this eminently ensemble-driven opera had no glaring weak links. In as much of the opera as I heard, Maurizio Muraro was a tame, pleasant Don Alfonso; Isabel Leonard made darker sounds in a lighter voice as Dorabella; Rodion Pogossov was a solid Guglielmo; and Danielle de Niese, a requisitely perky Despina, though I found the voice acidulous in places. As Ferrando, Matthew Polenzani took up another time-honored opera tradition, that of the tenor who announces that he is indisposed and then, having let off some of the pressure, gives a fine performance. Polenzani has been making a bid for some time for the more romantic Italian tenor roles, but Mozart remains a great fit for him, and he was the leader here.
“Cosi” is an abundant pleasure: it goes on for a long time, and Levine is hardly a conductor known for rapid tempi, so the evening felt positively Wagnerian in scale at some points.
The mixed nature of the evening -- the fine conducting, the only so-so experience from the stage -- was a reminder of something else about Levine. Although he is the Met’s music director, his fortunes have somehow never been tied to the house, in the sense that however bleak the Met’s artistic achievements have been in any given season, somehow we all still love Jimmy. Since Levine took over as music director in 1976, the Met has hardly seen a Golden Age, but the conventional wisdom is that his own tenure has represented one solid triumph. I say this not in a spirit of criticism, but simply of observation. It’s nice for him that he’s been able to pull this off. And it’s nice for us all that he’s back. May he stay healthy.