Review: James Levine with the Met and the BSO

Plus Mark Morris and Boston Baroque
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  October 20, 2010

VEGAS? TIJUANA?: The Met’s magnificent musical values for Das Rheingold deserved better than Robert Lepage’s empty and tacky $16 million production.

Sighs of relief at Symphony Hall, from patrons and management alike: James Levine, music director of both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera, had completed a doubleheader. First half: the Saturday-matinee HD telecast live from the Met of Wagner's nearly-three-hour (with no intermission) Das Rheingold, the inaugural production of the Met's new four-part Ring Cycle. Second half: that evening at Symphony Hall, his first BSO performance of Mahler's soul-stirring, hour-and-three-quarter (also with no intermission) Symphony No. 2. Both were triumphs for the conductor and his two great orchestras.

I followed the proceedings here in Boston, watching the sold-out telecast at the Fenway Theatre, then flying (but not, like Levine, by private jet) to Symphony Hall. I had already heard the Mahler two nights before. It was splendid; the orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus have rarely sounded more glorious. Levine allowed everything to unfold without pushing. Telling pauses were heartstopping. The slow glimpses of Heaven that interrupt the first movement's grim funeral march floated in timeless suspension. The second-movement country dance seemed in its own time capsule, an exquisitely nostalgic vision of the past, with enchanting pizzicatos from harps and antiphonal violins. Mahler's Scherzo, based on his satirical song about St. Anthony of Padua's sermon to indifferent fish, flowed beautifully (not suspended, like the previous dance), though I missed the pungent ironic edge.

The entrance of the chorus, barely above a whisper, singing Friedrich Klopstock's poem of belief in personal resurrection, was a ravishing high point, and mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill delivered the great song of warning, "Urlicht" ("Primal Light"), with sensitivity, urgency, and dynamic nuance. Young Layla Claire, who sang the small but important soprano solos under Michael Tilson Thomas at Tanglewood last summer, seemed to have grown into the role (with an even bigger leap forward on Saturday). Everything came together in the shattering final "Resurrection" movement, which was paced on the grandest scale, with the brasses especially impressive, singing out and not just pumping iron.

Levine seemed weary during the Rheingold curtain call, and back in Boston, he made his entrances and exits (to tumultuous applause) using a cane. For his final bow, he swung the cane like a rifle over his shoulder, seeming completely energized. Anyone who didn't think he could get through the day underestimated his stamina, if not his determination.

At the end of the Das Rheingold telecast (which is encoring this Wednesday, October 27), with the svelte body doubles for the gods climbing the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla, a friend leaned over and whispered: "What did you think of 'The Entrance of the Gods into Tijuana'?" The magnificent conducting and playing and largely impressive singing deserved better than Robert Lepage's empty and tacky $16 million, 45-ton high-tech production. Another friend, who saw it both at the Met and on screen, called it the "Vegas Ring." (In 2005, Lepage created Cirque du Soleil's permanent show at the MGM Grand.) Seeing it on the big movie screen, I was surprised at how polite most of the reviews have been; they even forgave the opening-night technical malfunction of the Rainbow Bridge. Wagner's Ring Cycle is about greed, power, corruption, heroism, and "family values." The Met's new production, at least so far, seems mainly about its fancy set. When I got home Saturday night, I put on my cherished DVD of the Patrice Chereau/Pierre Boulez 1980 Bayreuth production, which actually contends with the political, social, and psychological issues of this musical epic.

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