James Levine will not be conducting at the Metropolitan Opera this fall. There is no fall season at the New York City Opera. It is the end of an era for an art form and a city.
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?) But for now 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 of title means little. 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 to hire his own staff. That will happen only if he is named music director, which seems 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 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 an 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; we’ll see if he will place a true artistic leader alongside him.
While the turn in Mr. Levine’s health is sad news, there is a silver lining: at least some of the uncertainty is now over surrounding his 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; it was a reminder of the highlights of the conductor’s unprecedented New York career and the high standard he has left for whoever follows him.
Now, instead of starting off tentatively, the season can begin with a triumph. On Sept. 26, Anna Netrebko will sing her first opening night at the Met, the title role in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, an opera that has never before been done at the Met. Ms. Netrebko sang the role for just 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. (The icing on the cake is 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 Oct. 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.