Friday, October 12, 2012

The Met's Levine headed back to the podium

Let's forget the politicos' bad-mouthing and focus on good news: After being sidelined more than a year by health problems, the Metropolitan Opera's James Levine will return to the podium.  

Perched on a motorized wheelchair, Levine will lead the Met Orchestra in a concert at Carnegie Hall on May 19 -- almost exactly two years since he last conducted. Especially notable to those of us outside New York: Levine is scheduled to conduct three Met productions next season, and I can't imagine that one or two would not turn up on the movie-theater relays. 

Several years of health troubles climaxed for Levine in August 2011. A fall caused spinal injuries that, even after surgery, have left him "temporarily unable to walk," the Met's announcement says. His physicians, several of whom are quoted, say he's nevertheless in shape to go back into action, thanks to intensive rehab. 

"James Levine is an inspirational case, whose return to conducting will be a result of remarkable perseverance and hard work," the leader of his medical team says. 

No doubt Levine has more of that work ahead. Meanwhile, the opera house staff has a task to complement his: In order to accommodate his wheelchair, the announcement explains, "the Met's technical department is designing customized, elevating podiums that will be utilized on the Carnegie Hall stage and in the Met's orchestra pit." 

Keep your fingers crossed. Levine's health woes had already forced him to resign as the Boston Symphony's leader when, last year, he had to bow out of his entire season of engagements. It looked like that might be the end of the line for his conducting. That wouldn't have been right.  

Levine is only 69 years old, which isn't that much in conductor years. Yet, thanks to an rapid rise to prominence, he has been a linchpin of the opera world since the 1970s. Through his decades of radio broadcasts, telecasts and recordings -- and more recently, the Met's movie-theater showings -- he has been a fixture in U.S. opera lovers' lives. 

And through one portion of his job -- leader of the Met's orchestra -- Levine is the only conductor alive whose guidance and honing have lifted  an ensemble into the world's top handful. That's why I'm hoping the Met will beam Verdi's "Falstaff," one of his three operas next season, into theaters. 

I attended a "Falstaff" of Levine's at the Met a few years ago. He and his orchestra let fly with one of the most scintillating performances I've ever heard rise from an opera-house pit. Their color, dash and virtuosity let every facet of Verdi's comedy come to life in sound. The jingle of a coin purse being dangled as a bribe, the shimmer of moonlight, the laughter set off by the fat knight's comeuppance: The orchestra conjured up all of that and more. Look forward to "Falstaff" next season. It'll help you tune out the election's noise. 

Photo: Associated Press