Over many tenures, tenor James Levine has meant the world to the Metropolitan Opera, receiving what could perhaps be called the Grand Return after his first fill-in. In 1974, we got Karita Mattila in the title role of Così fan tutte. In 1985 we got Robert Merrill in the title role of the titular song cycle. And now, with Levine as conductor and Levine conducting Peter Mattei (a Met regular and veteran of such Levine-directed shows as The Lion King, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute), in the title role of Verdi’s La Traviata, we are blessed with an opera composer and pit orchestra meeting half way.
What is so gratifying is that this Monteverdi reworking by Verdi holds its own under Levine’s conducting. This is not a person in some authoritarian tutelage mode playing around with Verdi. They celebrate this piece in the traditional late-afternoon performance, blending the tremendous ability of Enrico Chiarambur and his Met orchestra with Matthew Polenzani’s magnificent vocal gifts to a terrific effect.
In his all-too-short time as general manager of the Met, Peter Gelb has built his operatic fortune on keeping the supply of Verdi classics by way of performance at the Met (the best of which, of course, is La Traviata, because it is Verdi.) The 2010 season by Moshe Leiser included Laura Mars’ singing of the dying Così fan tutte as lead in this production of La Traviata. But Leiser’s style was confrontational (“Why the hell aren’t we doing anything better?” he would shout at any cries of “Shelves and shelves of Verdi?”) His 2013 Maria Adriana López performance was marred by unpleasant vocal issues and too many technical quirks.
Levine’s approach is far less confrontational, a humanized push and pull at a grand opera, leavened with just enough technical hogwash to stop the singing from looking mannered or overly committed.
No shock there that Mattei makes the best possible offer of a large-scale swan song. He always acquits himself with intonation and a perfectly-reasoned and controlled coloratura.
The thing we associate with Mattei is his boyish way with light passages and his unceasing comic timing and flair. It is not always possible to hear those qualities as well done in the grand works of this type. That is not an indictment of Mattei’s talent, but rather a valid criticism of the opera-house climate under Leiser and in this artistic climate under Gelb.
Lest you imagine the aural landscape as too tranquil in this revival of the Opus de Triomphe reworking, the general sense is that the Met has rebuilt in principle to a point of stability.
The Verdi verismo section of the season opens Saturday with Giuseppe Filianoti singing Zerlina in Trovatore, followed by a less familiar production by Piero Lissoni of Rinaldo in Dukes. After a few more weeks, the summer season will include conductor Lou Conte conducting Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia and a weightier evening with the choral heavyweights of LA Opera in Verdi’s Aida.
As a bonus, new prints of some very old productions appear in excellent condition. Saturday, I can happily report on two of them: Baryshnikov Dance Theater’s 1976 performance of Anna Bolena at a packed Opus 1 with Lesley Durham in the title role and Tony Taccone (another Met, NYRA, Met and LA Opera icon) doing Mikhail Borodin in his funeral scene. And my favorite, Mary Stallings in her first Met Ritman presentation with another young star, Cristina Alejandra, in a beautifully balanced production by Joan Berman-Eisenbuch, who was chair of the Metropolitan Opera Council’s Hiring Committee of the Glimmerglass Festival.