DiDonato serves up a vocal star turn with Levine, MET Orchestra
James Levine didn’t get a full standing ovation this time, but he was greeted with a mighty roar as he ascended his custom-built podium at Carnegie Hall on Sunday to lead his Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. No doubt he can expect a few more of those as he continues his remarkable comeback season.
The conductor opened the program with the overture to I Vespri Siciliani, the first Verdi he has conducted since his hiatus began in May 2011. This overture is contained, even wistful, at its beginning, and yet there was weight in this reading, a sense of the drama to unfold in the five acts that theoretically follow. There was tender sentiment in the descending woodwind melody that breaks through the austere beginning, giving way to the crashing flair of the piece’s more brash subjects.
Following was an evocative performance of Elliott Carter’s simmering Variations for Orchestra. The piece is frequently disorienting, pitting contrary musical ideas against each other at every turn, and the orchestra accentuated these clashes with their expressive playing, alternating between richness and rawness. There was never confusion, however—Levine guided the piece with a steady hand, winding through terror and wit on the way to a disquieting semi-resolution.
Joyce DiDonato joined Levine and the orchestra for Rossini’s Giovanna d’Arco. This rarely heard cantata offers a standalone scene that calls for dramatic range and depth of character, and in these departments the star mezzo-soprano excelled. Vocally, she had a full, round tone, but lacked her usual security, as her coloratura was less than pristine Sunday and her vibrato felt a little tight. She still gave a committed performance, singing with the fire appropriate to a young Jeanne d’Arc, if not quite finding her tenderness in the aria’s fleeting moments of vulnerability.
DiDonato sounded more at home in two arias from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito after intermission. She recaptured her ringing tone as she soared in “Deh per questo istante solo,” begging for death as the young Sesto in Act II. She was even more affecting as Vitellia in “Non più di fiori.” Her change in character was remarkable, visible and audible the instant she began the recitative, trying to steel her own resolve. She was masterful in navigating the aria’s twisting and changing emotions, showing off her floating high notes and her muscular lower register—to hear her move seamlessly from one to the other was glorious.
It’s been said many times, but it bears repeating that, Fidelio aside, we don’t get to hear this orchestra play Beethoven nearly often enough. In Symphony No. 7, the musicians showed off the power and depth more often heard in their Verdi and Wagner. But while their sound was rich, Levine’s interpretation was surprisingly uneven.
He took a brisk tempo for the first movement—indeed, his tempi in all four movements were on the pushy side—and brought sharp articulation out of his strings. The result was an opening of piercing clarity—not a trace of fuzziness in this reading. The heroic vivace theme was stirring. The second movement, though intricate in its orchestration, is built on simplicity, and there was wonderful purity in the MET orchestra’s performance. It’s hard to imagine better balancing, as each discrete line could be heard amidst the pulsing mass.
The third movement was less polished—there were sour brass notes and the contrasts written into the score were missing: The scherzo brimmed with playful energy, but the trio sections, usually an opportunity for reflective calm, felt hurried.
Levine took long pauses after each movement, but most egregious was the one between the third and the fourth. A short break here can hold some of the tension left over from the scherzo’s sudden surprise ending, but the silence persisted long past the point by which all such tension and dissipated.
The finale itself was perplexing. This movement is so often boisterous and exuberant, but in Levine’s interpretation it was almost disturbingly manic. There was a strange heaviness to it, due partly to the same biting articulation in the strings that had been heard in the first movement. Again it was messy in the brass, making it feel as though it were on the edge of running away. More con fuoco than con brio, the finale had plenty of zip, but overshot the mark.
The MET Orchestra will return to Carnegie Hall with a Mahler program on December 22 and a Dvorak program on May 11. carnegiehall.org
Eric C. Simpson is the Hilton Kramer Fellow in Criticism at The New Criterion.