Opera, Softly Covered, in James Levine Book

50547491 Opera, Softly Covered, in James Levine BookThis year was supposed to be James Levine’s victory lap.

On June 5, Mr. Levine celebrates the 40th anniversary of his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, where he has conducted nearly 2,500 performances and been music director since 1976. He began the season conducting a new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, which opened as the Met released a box set of 32 CDs and 21 DVDs–22 complete operas in all–in honor of the anniversary.

His storied range was on display in the operas he was slotted to conduct. In addition to the Rheingold and a new production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, he was to lead revivals of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Verdi’s Il Trovatore and Simon Boccanegra and Berg’s Wozzeck. The season was to end with the company’s tour of Japan and a performance of Verdi’s Don Carlo on the actual date of the anniversary. Oh, and all this was to occur simultaneously with his full season as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

It didn’t work out that way. After years of periodic cancellations due to a series of health problems, in March he resigned his position in Boston and, at the Met, canceled an additional two performances of Das Rheingold and the run of Il Trovatore. When he has conducted, the results have been uneven: Wozzeck was deep and vibrantly beautiful, but Walküre was disappointing and lethargic. Mr. Levine’s range of motion has looked expansive, but he has otherwise seemed physically weak, either not leaving the podium for his bow or hobbling gingerly to the stage.

This hasn’t quite been the year he might have hoped for, and it’s the depressing context in which the Met has published James Levine: 40 Years at the Metropolitan Opera. With Mr. Levine’s career ebbing, and Fabio Luisi being groomed to replace him at the Met, the book feels more like an elegy than a celebration.

It has the generous dimensions and full-color photo spreads of a coffee-table tome, but not the cover (which is soft) or the price (which is just $32). Unsurprisingly, the prevailing formal mode is the encomium. Yet even given the quality of coffee-table-book writing in general, and considering the range of Mr. Levine’s accomplishments, the prose here is thin, with the word “wonderful” repeated so often that you enter a kind of fugue state of approbation.

“She knew it was wonderful,” he writes of Leontyne Price’s relationship to her voice. On the next page, of Tatiana Troyanos: “God, what a wonderful artist.” Ileana Cotrubas? “Wonderful girl, wonderful artist.” Working with Cecilia Bartoli? “It was a completely happy, wonderful thing.”

At times, the praise grows disconcertingly cursory, as though the editors didn’t bother to massage Mr. Levine’s notes into actual sentences. “This was the first time I worked with Leonie,” he writes of the soprano Leonie Rysanek. “Heaven. Wonderful, passionate, funny, very hard-working.”

There is literally a single moment in the book in which opera comes alive. It’s when Mr. Levine talks about his work with the great tenor Jon Vickers on a single line in Verdi’s Otello. In a few sentences you get a sense of Vickers, of Mr. Levine, of Verdi, of the difficult close work that goes into every note of a great operatic performance, of the compromises inherent in producing theatrical art. It is the only time in which the relentless narrowness of the book’s tributes widens enough to let in a glimpse of something like reality.

Reality certainly doesn’t intrude on Mr. Levine’s perfunctory account of the Met’s devastating 1980 strike. “Terribly depressing,” he describes it. “It was the singular low point of my entire artistic life. As Music Director, I don’t have a function if we are not performing.” It’s a sentiment that shows a troubling disregard for the reasons behind the strike and the real lives–not just “artistic” lives–that were affected by it.

But perhaps we should not be surprised by this lack of compassion, of a certain human feeling. In 1974, Mr. Levine told Stephen Rubin, “I have good friends who feel that their wives and children are the most important things in their lives. I find it difficult to achieve real empathy with that, though I understand it. My ability to function in involvements with other individuals has always been contingent on my feeling properly involved with music.”

For those of us who have wondered about who Mr. Levine “really” is, we may yet be satisfied: Knopf recently announced that it will, at some future date, publish his autobiography. But even that might not be worth holding one’s breath for. While Mr. Levine is undoubtedly an important musician, the new book’s bland generalities, its tone of perpetual air-kiss, establishes his voice as detached and self-satisfied, and simply uninteresting. He is a person whose performances you may well want to hear, but not someone whose memoirs you’d ever want to read.

editorial@observer.com