Box sets trace Levine's 40 years at the Met

Globe Staff / October 3, 2010

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One evening in June 1971, a curly haired 28-year-old James Levine slipped into the pit of the Metropolitan Opera for his house debut, conducting “Tosca.’’ He remembers “this uncanny sense of feeling at home.’’

To mark the 40th anniversary of Levine’s debut, the Met has compiled two box sets, consisting mostly of previously unavailable telecasts and radio broadcasts presented on 21 DVDs and 32 CDs. The Globe’s classical music critics have dipped into both newly released sets and offer these reviews of a few highlights.

Kurt Weill: “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’’

Levine’s legacy at the Met will be defined in part by the works he has introduced to its repertory. These include not only Berg’s “Lulu’’ but also Weill’s “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,’’ that brilliantly synthetic score that seems to distill the musical essence of Weimar Berlin while serving up a scorching social and political critique that still resonates today.

By the late 1970s, “Mahagonny’’ was generally lingering on the edge of the repertory, but this production by John Dexter, introduced in 1979, helped secure its place. It also proved a remarkable vehicle for the soprano Teresa Stratas, whose performance as Jenny was hailed as one of her greatest at the Met. This telecast from late 1979 captures the stark potency of Dexter’s staging and finds this cast in excellent form. Levine’s conducting threads the needle, honoring this work’s debts to high and low traditions, its directness of statement but also its Mahlerian richness.

The tenor Richard Cassilly brings a singular combination of qualities to his performance as Jimmy Mahoney, the woodsman from Alaska who is executed for failing to pay his bar tab. There is an innocent sweetness of timbre combined with real vocal power, and a sense of truth-telling in his portrayal that gives Brecht’s sharp-edged libretto a poignant human dimension. Another standout from the cast is the famed Wagnerian singer Astrid Varnay, wonderfully effective as the widow Begbick.

And then there is Stratas, acting with subtlety and vulnerability, and singing with a dark purity of tone and musical intelligence that brings out the sheer classical beauty of Weill’s vocal writing. Rehearsals for this production were observed by Lotte Lenya, Weill’s widow, who sang the role of Jenny in Berlin in 1931. When she heard Stratas, she realized she had found her own successor in the quest to keep Weill’s vocal music alive.


Smetana: “The Bartered Bride,’’ Nov. 21, 1978 (DVDs)

For most of the 20th century, the only Czech opera seen regularly at the Met was Bedrich Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride.’’ No less a luminary than Smetana’s fellow Bohemian Gustav Mahler introduced it into the repertoire in 1909, 45 years after its Prague premiere.

In 1978, John Dexter staged a new production outfitted with abstract sets by celebrated Czech stage designer Josef Svoboda, and sung in a clumsy English translation conveying almost none of the wit and poetic cadence of the folksy Czech libretto by Karel Sabina. A young James Levine conducted a dream cast: Teresa Stratas as Marenka, Nicolai Gedda as Jenik, Jon Vickers as the stuttering Vasek, and Marti Talvella as the booming matchmaker Kecal.

This DVD version of a “Live From the Met’’ television broadcast of the performance of Nov. 21, 1978, conveys some of that excitement, although the color looks garish and the lighting is often dark, especially in Act III. Pavel Smok’s inventive, flirtatious choreography comes across loud and clear. So does the joy of Stratas’s delicate but gutsy portrayal of Marenka, the village maiden wise beyond her years.


Berg: “Wozzeck,’’ March 8, 1980 (CDs) and Oct. 6, 2001 (DVD)

“I’m a Berg freak,’’ James Levine once told a reporter, and the Met’s new box sets contain four Berg recordings — one each on CD and DVD of the operatic masterpieces “Wozzeck’’ and “Lulu.’’

“Wozzeck,’’ the story of a poor soldier whose humiliation at the hands of an uncaring world drives him to murder his girlfriend Marie and take his own life, has been a mainstay of Levine’s Met tenure. The filmed version in this set, from a 2001 performance of a Mark Lamos production, is a testament to the wisdom accrued from decades of performances. Levine provides scrupulously balanced accompaniment for his singers; baritone Falk Struckmann, in the title role, sings Wozzeck with painful nobility, and both he and soprano Katarina Dalayman as Marie give Berg’s vocal melodies a shapely, bel canto beauty. The “Wozzeck’’ CD in this set is of the 1980 performance with leads José van Dam and Anja Silja.


Tatiana Troyanos, Placido Domingo, Feb. 28, 1982; Leontyne Price, Marilyn Horne, March 28, 1982; Placido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes, Jan. 30, 1983 (CDs)

After a labor dispute that delayed the Met’s 1980-81 season, James Levine had an idea “to get our momentum back’’: a series of concerts with opera stars and the Met orchestra, then at its early peak after seven years under Levine’s leadership. Three of these concerts were televised, and selections are included in the Levine anniversary package.

To fit on two discs, the broadcasts are stripped of the original commentary and seriously abridged. Two of Leontyne Price and Marilyn Horne’s duets, from “Cosi fan tutte’’ and “Norma,’’ are sadly passed over, for example. These cuts mince Levine’s beautifully put-together programs, which always balance novelty and familiarity, light and heavy.

Still, there are many moments: An unforgettable “Pace, pace’’ by Price, a melting “Un di all’azzuro spazio’’ by Domingo, a thrilling “Urna fatale’’ by Milnes, a sizzling “Forza’’ overture, and on and on. Daringly close camerawork by directors Kirk Browning (Domingo-Troyanos and Domingo-Milnes) and Brian Large (Price-Horne) takes us almost into the singers’ mouths and captures the animal intensity of great operatic singing. And you can see Levine himself, then in his young prime, driving, encouraging, listening, empathizing, as he moves his arms and baton in liquid arcs, a connection felt perhaps but not seen when he’s in the pit. DAVID PERKINS

Berlioz: “Les Troyens,’’ Feb. 22, 2003; Berlioz: “Benvenuto Cellini,’’ Dec. 23, 2003 (CDs)

The Metropolitan Opera is a company of spectacle, which makes it all the more strange that they ignored the spectacularly minded Hector Berlioz for so long. These two recordings testify to James Levine’s efforts to change that, reviving the Virgilian epic “Les Troyens’’ in 1983 and 2003, and conducting the Met premiere of Berlioz’s first opera, “Benvenuto Cellini,’’ in 2003.

The 2003 “Les Troyens’’ is, first of all, exquisitely paced: Romantic volubility is balanced against a stately, almost ritualistic structure.

This “Les Troyens’’ is also notable as the last Met role of the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Among an accomplished cast (including Deborah Voigt, Dwayne Croft, Ben Heppner, and Matthew Polenzani), Lieberson, as Dido, makes the weight of power and tug of love heartbreakingly palpable.

If “Les Troyens’’ is a polychromed marble monument, “Benvenuto Cellini’’ is bright silk and gold thread. It’s the sort of opera that makes an aria out of a wine list, and Levine whips up a sound to match: light, lush, fizzy.

The production at times struggles to square the opera’s competing demands of opulence and agility. The real star of this “Benvenuto Cellini’’ is the Met Orchestra: tight, fluid, and beautifully attuned to Berlioz’s brocades of ornamentation and figuration.


Correction: Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe by the Metropolitan Opera, this review of CD and DVD box sets celebrating James Levine’s 40th anniversary with the Met mischaracterized a performance of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck.’’ A mislabeled CD provided to reviewers featured a different performance of the opera, not the 1980 recording starring José van Dam and Anja Silja that is actually in the box set.