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MUSIC REVIEWS

Levine's Silver Jubilee a Marathon at the Met

Music Review: Nearly 60 major singers serve a shameless, shapeless, formless smorgasbord of arias and ensembles.

April 29, 1996|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Yes, yes. We know. Contrary to popular mythology, more is more. Nothing exceeds like excess.

There was proof galore Saturday night--and Sunday morning too--at the Metropolitan Opera. James Levine, maestro in excelsis, was celebrating his silver anniversary in the pit and ending the 1995-96 season with a mega-monster concert.

The festivities, relayed to a grateful nation via delayed TV, began here at 6 p.m. and ended at 2 a.m. Repeat: 2 a.m. A box seat cost $2,500. Repeat: $2,500. Access to nose-bleed territory in the top balcony cost $100.

Perhaps a few statistics will help put things in focus. Levine--a conductor much loved by singers and audiences, revered at best and respected at worst by critics--made his Met debut in 1971 leading a routine "Tosca" with Grace Bumbry. In 1973, he was appointed principal conductor. In 1976 he was named music director. In 1986 he became artistic director. During his quarter-century of multifaceted service, he manned the podium for 1,557 performances of 68 different stage works, plus 89 concerts and special events.

In an age that allows--perhaps encourages--absentee leadership, short-attention-span affiliations and spotty jet-propelled careers, Levine has served as a wondrous anachronism. He has been loyal to the Met, and the Met has been loyal to him. For better or worse (probably better), the company reflects his particular strengths, his creative perspectives and his tireless enthusiasms. Under his watch, the orchestra has become a virtuoso instrument and the repertory has undergone some healthy expansion. On good nights, the Met actually lives up to its lofty international reputation. The anniversary gala enlisted nearly 60 major singers serving a shameless, shapeless, formless smorgasbord of arias and ensembles. Characteristically for the Met, perhaps, there was nothing on the agenda resembling modernism (John Corigliano's pretty-pretty music doesn't count), and there was no serious attempt to portray opera as drama. Lavish sets for "Francesca da Rimini," "Arabella" and "Tannhauser" merely served as decorative, incongruous backdrops for a parade of disparate singers striking poses in competitive evening attire. In gestures that would befit a century of Valentine's Days, the assembled women blew a crescendo of kisses to their beaming boss out front.

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Some stellar participants turned out to be no-shows. Cecilia Bartoli, Luciano Pavarotti, Hildegard Behrens and Marilyn Horne were reported ailing. Kathleen Battle, whose prima-donna tantrums got her fired a couple of seasons ago, apparently remains persona non grata in deepest, darkest Lincoln Center. Jose Carreras was conspicuously absent, as were any conductors whose name don't happen to be Levine. Somehow, the cheering mob managed to contain its disappointment.

Levine began the marathon with Wagner--a rather sluggish traversal of the "Rienzi" overture--and ended it, eight hours later, with more Wagner--a rather anticlimactic traversal of the "Meistersinger" finale (with Bernd Weikl as a shaky Hans Sachs and nary a Beckmesser in sight). Since the events that came between resembled nothing so much as a glitzy awards ceremony, a selective list of superlatives may be the most efficient way to chronicle the sprawl.

Evening's best-hyped newlyweds: Roberto Alagna, the dulcet-toned Franco-Italian tenor, and Angela Gheorghiu, the sweet and limpid Romanian soprano, who brought cooing finesse to the Cherry Duet from Mascagni's "L'Amico Fritz."

Best demonstration of full-throated bravura: "O don fatale" from Verdi's "Don Carlo," passionately flung into the vast open spaces by Dolora Zajick.

Most incendiary performance: Isolde's Narrative and Curse as sung by Waltraud Meier, an intensely committed mezzo-soprano with a wide-open top range who returns next season in, of all roles, Carmen.

Most affecting demonstration of enduring suavity and pathos (and proof that there were tenorissimos before the Big Three): The romanza from Verdi's "Luisa Miller" as sung by Carlo Bergonzi, age 72.

Most astonishing demonstration of enduring elegance: Excerpts from "Werther" and "Hoffmann" as sung by Alfredo Kraus, only 69.

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Best singing by a non-singer: The ravishing violin solo performed by Raymond Gniewek in the "Lombardi" trio.

Most striking triumph of theatricality against the odds: The "Yevgeny Onegin" finale, feverishly enacted by Catherine Malfitano and Dwayne Croft.

The if- you- sound- like- that- who- cares- how- you- look? award: To Jane Eaglen, a Wagnerian diva straight from a New Yorker cartoon, who flooded the gates with Brunnhilde's Immolation Scene.

The if- you- look- like- that- some- people- care- how you sound award: To Sharon Sweet, a strident soprano impersonating Leonora in Verdi's "Forza."

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