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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Withdrawal Symptoms

James Levine will step down as the Met's Music Director next season..
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Roll over, Beethoven: James Levine onstage at Carnegie Hall.
Photo by Steve J. Sherman for The Metropolitan Opera.
An era has ended at the Metropolitan Opera. Today, in an e-mail received by Superconductor, the Met press office announced that music director James Levine will step down from his post at the end of this current season. Mr. Levine, 72, has served as music director since 1976.

Mr. Levine has led more than 2,500 performances at the Met in a career that spans over four decades. His artistic achievements include performances of all the major Wagner and Verdi operas, triggering a revival of interest in the former with a spectacular 1988 staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen. His talents extended into the 18th and 20th centuries, and made sure that the operas of composers like Christoph Willibald Gluck and Arnold Schoenberg were mounted on the vast Met stage as standard repertory works.

This season, Mr. Levine has led revivals of Tannhäuser, Die Fledermaus and Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. However his health issues have dominated the headlines of the world of opera.  with audience members showering him with ovations while muttering at intermission whether or not the increasingly frail-looking conductor could continue in his duties. That speculation was fanned last October, when Mr. Levine withdrew from Lulu, an opera by Alban Berg that he championed for much of his career. The sudden Lulu withdrawal occasioned comment last fall as the conductor elected to lead performances of the shorter (and musically less demanding) Die Fledermaus.

Beginning next season, Mr. Levine will assume the newly created post of music director emeritus. For now, Mr. Levine will turn his talents to Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail ("The Abduction from the Seraglio"), a comedy by Mozart. Next season, he will conduct revivals of Mozart's Idomeneo, a Rossini comedy L'Italiana in Algeri and Nabucco, the latter starring frequent collaborator Plácido Domingo. Additionally, his new post means that he will continue to oversee the Met's Lindemann Young Artists Program, which has been crucial to the development of new talent at the opera house. However, he will withdraw from a planned new Robert Carsen production of Der Rosenkavalier.

James Levine has spent much of this decade battling health issues, including an injury suffered in a fall that sidelined him for two years. He returned to conducting both at the opera house and in Carnegie Hall, using a special, motorized wheelchair and conducting platform to lead both the orchestra and a run of Mozart's Cosí fan tutte. And yet, the hands shook, tempos sometimes lagged, and problems were audible in the Met's world-class orchestra. According to a report by Michael Cooper in the New York Times, Met general manager Peter Gelb was going to announce the maestro's retirement this winter, but medical updates offered a glimmer of hope.

In recent years, the embattled conductor has faced down cancer, organ loss and the aforementioned back injury that ultimately cost him his post as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Met stuck by their conductor, though, appointing Fabio Luisi to the post of Principal Conductor as a kind of backup. However, earlier this season Mr. Luisi announced that he is leaving the Met to pursue conducting opportunities in Switzerland and his native Italy. This announcement by Mr. Levine and the departure of Mr. Luisi puts considerable pressure on the Met to pick a new music director, and soon.

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