The following is an excerpt from Zachary Woolfe’s preview of the fall opera season in New York, to run next week in The Observer’s special fall arts preview.
James Levine will not be conducting at the Metropolitan Opera this fall. Mr. Levine, who has suffered yet another setback in a long series of health problems, retains the title of music director, but there is now little doubt that his period of leadership is over. There has been and will be ample opportunity to eulogize Mr. Levine’s storied Met career, and to continue the kibitzing about his future. (Will he return in the spring? Perhaps to conduct one of the Ring cycles, if only to complete the new production’s DVD set?)
The company’s future is the important thing. Tied to the announcement of Mr. Levine’s cancellations was the promotion of Fabio Luisi to principal conductor from his former position as principal guest conductor. The change means basically nothing. Though Mr. Luisi’s workload of high-profile conducting assignments will increase, he will get no new powers to influence the company’s artistic direction or hire his own staff.
That would happen only if he were named music director, but that seems like far from a sure thing. The music directorship is a much wider-ranging role that involves setting the Met’s overall artistic agenda, a part of the job that has been largely off the radar since Mr. Levine’s health troubles began to become more acute, about five years ago. It remains to be seen if the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, is willing to share power with another strong figure.
Mr. Luisi is a perfectly excellent conductor, but people will be watching to see if he is an artistic force, the kind of person who could argue with Mr. Gelb and win, the kind of person you would think to put in charge of one of the world’s top opera companies. (I’m talking about a musician on the level, say, of Riccardo Muti or Christian Thielemann.) Mr. Gelb has done many important things for the company, but we’ll see if he will place a true artistic leader alongside him.
At least some of the uncertainty is now over surrounding Mr. Levine’s condition, which dominated last season at the Met, when he canceled performances left and right and resigned his other major position, as the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Near the end of the season, he led an incandescent version of Berg’s Wozzeck, aided by an excellent cast featuring Waltraud Meier, a reminder of the highlights of his unprecedented New York career and the high standard he has left for whoever follows him.
Now, instead of beginning with uncertainty, this season can begin with a triumph. On September 26, Anna Netrebko will sing her first opening night at the Met, the title role in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, an opera which has never before been done at the Met. Ms. Netrebko just sang the role for the first time in April, but a radio broadcast of that Vienna performance demonstrated everything we’ve come to admire about her: the warmth of tone, the passion of attack, the emotional generosity. Bolena is a dazzling part in a dazzling opera, capped by one of opera’s great mad scenes, and it should be an evening to remember. (It’s just icing on the cake that at the tail end of the run, Ms. Netrebko will make her New York recital debut at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 26, accompanied by Elena Bahkirova in songs by Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. Carnegie and the Met should be offering a package deal; you’d be crazy to miss either one.)
Mr. Levine had planned to start his season October 13 conducting the next new production: Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Directed, in his Met debut, by Michael Grandage, who won a Tony for Red, it stars Marina Rebeka, Barbara Frittoli, Ramón Vargas, and Luca Pisaroni. Now most of those performances will be taken over by Mr. Luisi, as will most of the run of the new production of Siegfried that opens on Oct. 27.
Mr. Levine is still officially on board for the three full Ring cycles in April and May, which will feature star the Brünnhilde of Deborah Voigt. Ms. Voigt had a disappointing last season. Her sunny temperament was well suited to the wild-west romance of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, but the part is notoriously difficult and she sounded edgy and insecure. (Giancarlo del Monaco’s picturesque, absurd production didn’t help.) By her role debut as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre in the spring, expectations were low enough that she had a success by getting through it, sounding bright but thin and acting with almost desperate enthusiasm. This year will only be more difficult, with Siegfried in October before the ultimate test of the Ring’s finale, Götterdammerung, and the full cycles in the spring. (She will also sing Wagner, Barber and the final scene of Strauss’s Salome at the New York Philharmonic’s opening night on Sept. 21.)