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Into the Post-Levine Era

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
05/22/2016 -  
Richard Strauss: Don Juan, opus 20 – Four Last Songs – Meinem Kinde, opus 37 n° 3 – Liebeshymnus, opus 32 n° 3 – Das Bächlein, opus 88 n° 1 – Ruhe, meine Seele, opus 27 n° 1 – Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland, opus 56 n° 6 – Also sprach Zarathustra, opus 30
Renée Fleming (soprano)
The MET Orchestra, David Robertson (conductor)

R. Fleming (© Andrew Eccles)

In a stunning yet not totally unexpected late season announcement, the Metropolitan Opera announced that its long-time artistic leader James Levine, with the company since 1971, would finally stand down as music director at the end of the 2015-16 opera season. Health problems have visibly ravaged Levine over the past few years, leading to complaints of uneven performances, unreliable direction, and occasional withdrawals from big-ticket assignments. But for anyone who heard Levine’s last productions in the house earlier this spring, his departure leaves much to be lamented. In any case he is not really going. With no replacement waiting in the wings, Levine has been promoted to "Music Director Emeritus" and will continue to conduct productions and work with young artists. The announcement left ambiguity over the future of the concert series by the Met Orchestra, an ensemble Levine has raised to a truly world class standing over the past few decades. Of the three concerts booked for Carnegie Hall’s venerable stage, Levine will still conduct two (with his "emeritus" status noted), leaving this afternoon’s all-Richard Strauss affair to colleague David Robertson, the well regarded director of the St. Louis and Sydney Symphonies.

Robertson brought a decisive but airy touch to two Strauss tone poems and a reliably favorable accompaniment to the superstar soprano Renée Fleming’s performance of the Four Last Songs and five other Strauss songs, together with an encore. Nevertheless, for all of Robertson’s undoubted talent, the orchestra very much remains Levine’s, with scintillating sweep and epic flair in the tone poems. Don Juan does not, contrary to some commentary, retell the story of the damned and unrepentant seducer, but rather imbues the character with a poignant evolution of mood. It is a stream of emotional intensity that accompanies the rogue on his adventures. With near perfect precision, the Met’s players delivered a striking performance that recalled their best work with Strauss’s luxuriant operatic scores. Truer words could not be spoken of the second symphonic piece, Also sprach Zarathustra, which opened with probably the finest and most declamatory fanfare I have ever heard and proceeded through the story of man’s evolution with the ironic grace from which Strauss is inseparable.

Now of a certain age, Ms. Fleming retains her formidable star power, even if some of the voice’s original luster shows signs of eclipse. She is a singer of enormous intelligence who imbued every phrase of the total of ten songs with delicacy and effortless forethought. Nevertheless, in "September" and a couple of the other selections, there was an occasional mid-to-low range muddiness that one would probably not have heard in her ten years ago. The more tender "Beim Schlafengehen," however, purred with a late season charm. Robertson’s substitution for Levine may have marred the natural synergy that the originally scheduled conductor has with Ms. Fleming. Occasionally she sounded a bit overwhelmed by the enormous collective talent behind her. It is unfortunate that Levine will not lead the Met’s new production (the first since 1969) of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier next season, in which Fleming will reprise her famous Marschallin. But one still looks forward to hearing her in the role even if it will not resound as radiantly as it once did.

Paul du Quenoy



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