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.
Mr. Levine is still officially on board for the three full Ring cycles in April and May, starring Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde. 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 last fall, but the part is notoriously difficult and she sounded edgy and insecure. (Giancarlo del Monaco’s picturesque but clunky production didn’t help.) By the time her debut as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre rolled around in the spring, expectations were low enough that she had a success just 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.)
And there is a new note of doubt about one of the great singers of our time. Jonas Kaufmann, who is to star in a new production of Gounod’s Faust, opening on Nov. 29, recently announced that he would have an operation to remove a node from his chest. He has not yet canceled any of his engagements, however, and Faust, directed by Des McAnuff and also featuring Marina Poplavskaya and René Pape, will be an interesting test of the opera’s continued relevance; Gounod’s operas, once extremely popular, seem less vibrant now.
Like Ms. Netrebko, Mr. Kaufmann is pairing his big new production with a New York recital debut. His, on Oct. 30, will be on the Met’s stage, which earlier this year was the venue for a concert by no less an eminence than Andrea Bocelli. I’d bet that Mr. Kaufmann’s, which will feature songs by Liszt, Mahler, Duparc and Strauss, will be the more memorable of the two.
Mr. Kaufmann is also scheduled to sing the lead in Cilea’s meaty verismo opera Adriana Lecouvreur with the scrappy Opera Orchestra of New York on Nov. 8, joined by the tempestuous Angela Gheorghiu. The two came together for Adriana last year in London, but since Ms. Gheorghiu is on a kind of probation at the Met after a series of cancellations, this may well be an increasingly rare opportunity to see her in New York.
Of the Met’s fall revivals, there are two that are unmissable, one pretty old and one pretty new. Handel’s Rodelinda, opening Nov. 14, may suffer from the questionable bel canto stylings of Renee Fleming, but it has Stephanie Blythe, Andreas Scholl and the Met debut of the remarkable young countertenor Iestyn Davies, who also makes his New York recital debut at Carnegie Hall on Dec. 15. And if you haven’t seen the moving production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha (opening Nov. 4), you must.
With a hobbled New York City Opera restricting its coming season to 16 performances of four operas in the spring, opera lovers will have to turn to other companies and venues for their Met alternative.
Nico Muhly, whose first opera, Two Boys, premiered this summer in London, will follow up that success with Dark Sisters, about the aftermath of government raids on a polygamous sect in the American Southwest. It will be performed, starting on Nov. 9, by the excellent Gotham Chamber Opera at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, conducted by Neal Goren and directed by Rebecca Taichman. The Collegiate Chorale and American Symphony Orchestra under James Bagwell will perform Rossini’s Moïse et Pharaon at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 30, starring Marina Rebeka and Angela Meade (who also will take over for Anna Netrebko in three of those performances of Anna Bolena).
The Brooklyn Academy of Music opens its 150th anniversary season with Lully’s Baroque masterpiece Atys, with the great William Christie conducting his ensemble, Les Arts Florissants, in Jean-Marie Villégier’s sublimely elegant staging. Atys was one of the hits that established BAM’s opera program in 1989, and it returned in 1992. There are just five performances, starting on Sept. 18, and it is a must-see. Stop reading right now and buy a ticket.
In case that 17th-century stylization isn’t enough for you, try the 20th century: Robert Wilson’s production of Weill and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, featuring the New York debut of the Berliner Ensemble and influenced, as usual with Mr. Wilson, by the wide eyes and pale faces of German Expressionist cinema.
By now you probably know how you feel about Mr. Wilson’s work, which continues to veer between bloated self-indulgence and revelatory beauty. He is often most effective in pre-existing operas, when he’s not able to set the pace. (The Met’s unforgettable Lohengrin is a good example.) How good this Threepenny Opera is may well depend on how many ponderous pauses Mr. Wilson decides to insert between Brecht’s brilliant lines and Weill’s timeless songs.
As always, Carnegie Hall has the best recital program in the city. This fall there are the established—Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Oct. 30), Angelika Kirschlager (Nov. 12), Ian Bostridge (Nov. 28) and Karita Mattila (Dec. 10)—as well as the talented newcomers Layla Claire (Oct. 21) and Jennifer Johnson Cano (Nov. 12). It’s a new era, and singers like these two are its new stars.