Taking stock of James Levine's tarnished legacy

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Taking stock of James Levine's tarnished legacy
From left: Karita Mattila, Bernd Weikl and Ben Heppner in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1995. James Levine's career ended with allegations of sexual abuse and harassment, but the Metropolitan Opera’s longtime conductor, who has died at 77, changed that company in ways that will outlive him. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Anthony Tommasini

NEW YORK, NY (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- I was a freelance critic, but not on duty, when I attended a Saturday matinee performance of Wagner’s sprawling comedy “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” at the Metropolitan Opera in December 1995.

The cast was close to ideal. The elegant Bernd Weikl as the wise cobbler Hans Sachs. A luminous Karita Mattila as young Eva. The heroic Ben Heppner as Walther, who falls for her. And Hermann Prey, a distinguished veteran, as Beckmesser, the town busybody.

Yet the star was James Levine.

It was often like that when he was conducting during his decadeslong reign at the Met, which ended in ignominy a few years ago amid disturbing allegations of sexual abuse and harassment — and then conclusively with his death, on March 9, at 77.

If the Met Orchestra sounded resplendent, and played with alertness and ease, in that long-ago “Meistersinger,” it was in large part because of Levine’s leadership, then already of more than 20 years’ standing. I especially remember Hans Sachs’ soliloquy, when this generally tolerant character suddenly, angrily bewails the selfishness he witnesses in his neighbors. Levine tapped into the mellow harmonic richness and wistful poignancy of the music, almost as if offering Sachs consolation, as if urging him not to lose his faith in people.

Now, of course, it is impossible to ignore that it was Levine who was selfish, someone who could make you lose your faith in people. His fans, his colleagues and the critics who covered him have all had to reconcile his momentous artistic legacy — “No artist in the 137-year history of the Met had as profound an impact as James Levine,” Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, said in a statement — with the allegations that stain that legacy.

It is impossible to think about Levine in the same way in the aftermath of those awful allegations. To acknowledge his achievements is not to minimize the very real suffering of his victims. But it is still worth taking a moment to consider how he changed the Met in ways that will outlive him.

He built its orchestra — which had never been the glory of a company built on showcasing singers — into an ensemble that rivals the world’s great symphonic orchestras. He cultivated a rapport with its players in the most direct way: by performing with them in chamber music programs both as a pianist and a conductor. He established a young artists program that has become a model for companies everywhere. (Even that program, though, is clouded: After Levine sued the Met for firing him over the abuse allegations, the company said that its investigation had found that he drew victims from the program’s ranks.)

He set about making milestone operas of the 20th century central to the Met’s repertoire, including Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande,” Berg’s “Wozzeck” and “Lulu,” and Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.” (He even tried his best to tempt the company’s audience to Schoenberg’s 12-tone “Moses und Aron.”) Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” and “Idomeneo” were no longer overlooked historical curiosities during the Levine years. He introduced the Met to Weill and Brecht’s “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” and the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess,” both with enormous success. A Stravinsky evening featured “The Rite of Spring,” “The Nightingale” and “Oedipus Rex.”

Since his big break in opera came early, when he made his last-minute Met debut at just 28 conducting Puccini’s “Tosca,” he was thrust among the still-vital twilight of Golden Age greats, learning from Renata Tebaldi, Jon Vickers, Leontyne Price, Christa Ludwig, Birgit Nilsson and others, while forming close associations with emerging greats like Jessye Norman, Teresa Stratas, Hildegard Behrens and Plácido Domingo.

Like other American musicians of the period after World War II, he brought a fresh, unjaded approach and clearheaded musicianship to the scores of the European past. When he spoke of operas he loved, like Verdi’s “Otello,” Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” or “The Rake’s Progress,” he often said, “It’s such a great piece.” That final word was crucial, I think. “Tosca” can’t be just a moment-to-moment drama; it must also have the inexorable sweep of a symphony, a piece. Levine, at his best, conveyed this.

He strove for naturalness, for music that emerged with no sense of effort. I once watched him rehearse the overture to “Così.” He wanted this well-known music to whisk by with articulate clarity, while seeming to float. He didn’t want the players to sound like they were trying to execute streams of notes accurately.

The brainy serialist composer Milton Babbitt once told me about his astonishment at hearing Levine, then just in his early 20s and an assistant at the Cleveland Orchestra, play the piano in a rehearsal for the premiere of Babbitt’s “Relata I,” a score of intimidating polyphonic complexity.

“Jimmy knew the entire score,” Babbitt said, “and he could play anybody’s part.”

That intellect often worked to Levine’s advantage at the podium. In operas like “Pelléas et Mélisande” and “Wozzeck,” he was drawn to their balance of extravagant emotion and structural rigor. He proved an ideal conductor of such works.

But his gravitation to the intellectual elements of music, especially in contemporary works, limited his reach, especially during his tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, from 2004-11. Finally, he had a chance to make his mark fostering living composers with a major ensemble. But he seemed interested primarily in formidably complex creators like Elliott Carter, Charles Wuorinen and Babbitt. These were looming figures. But what about the new generation?

That he did not make the Met a cultivator of new operas, especially by younger composers, was a true failure. The Met’s record in commissioning operas during the Levine era was sadly inadequate. Late in his tenure, the Met presented premieres by Thomas Adès and Nico Muhly — composers he evinced no interest in.

You would think a music director would be eager to put his name on new works, to prod his company to foster the future. But during a 2013 interview with Charlie Rose, Levine pushed back against the suggestion that the Met should present a new opera each season. “I wish I really thought there was a new opera good enough for the Met every year,” he said. It was a dismaying comment.

His accomplishments are documented in a huge catalog of recordings and videos, which have been omnipresent in the Met’s schedule of free nightly streams over the past year. His effect also looms, tragically, in the lives of the men he is accused of taking advantage of.

At the end of that “Meistersinger” in 1995, after the jubilant scene of cheering townspeople, Levine’s arms dropped to his sides. For a moment, there was silence in the opera house. Then the ovation broke out, and went on and on.

For all the extraordinary singing, Levine and the orchestra were the heroes of the afternoon. That orchestra has spent the pandemic furloughed without pay. About 40% of the players left the New York area. More than a tenth retired.

The ensemble has been locked in a tense battle over its future with the Met’s management. The musicians recently voted to accept reduced paychecks in exchange for returning to the bargaining table, where the company is seeking lasting pay cuts that it says are needed to survive the pandemic.

One way for the Met to honor the best elements of Levine’s hopelessly tarnished legacy would be to save the magnificent orchestra he built.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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