For those who ponder the often inscrutable movements of today’s international star conductors, the appointments of James Levine to head the Munich Philharmonic and Valery Gergiev to occupy the newly created post of principal guest conductor at the Metropolitan Opera have led to much head-scratching. No convincing reasons have yet been offered to explain why Levine would want to spend what little free time he has away from the Met overseeing a minor-league European orchestra, especially since the prospects for glamorous international exposure – global tours, major recording projects, and the like – are virtually nonexistent in these tight times for classical music. Of course, the pay isn’t bad – an annual salary of $289,000 plus an extra $34,680 for each of his contracted 24 appearances per season – but money can hardly be an issue for a conductor who already commands a huge yearly salary and for whom dogged work seems to consume his whole life.
Then, too, one wonders why Levine continued to pursue the job at all after the acrimonious negotiations culminated in an outrageous demand from Germany’s liberal Green party that the conductor present the city with a certificate of “good behavior,” i.e., proof that he has not been convicted of a criminal offense or that any such charges may be pending. It’s unlikely that Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel, Bernard Haitink, or Colin Davis, other foreign conductors who hold or have held posts in Munich, were ever similarly insulted. The final slap came when one newspaper rudely suggested, just before Levine was officially tendered the post, that “the Philharmonic should choose someone cheaper, younger, slimmer, and more Bavarian.” Obviously journalistic dialogue is saltier in Munich than in New York – this protracted and ugly controversy never even surfaced in the Times, which merely reported the news of Levine’s appointment based on sanitized information fed the paper by the Met. In any case, Levine starts out on his Munich adventure under a cloud of speculation, a situation so delicate that even his worst enemies might wish him luck.
Meanwhile, Valery Gergiev continues to lead an even busier, more exhausting, and increasingly charmed life as his Kirov opera troupe and orchestra continue to make acclaimed recordings, videos, and world tours – their visit to New York next April and May with four Russian operatic rarities is eagerly awaited. The Met is obviously delighted to deflect any bad publicity the messy Levine situation might provoke by having a prestigious name like Gergiev on board as principal guest conductor, even if, as management insists, the Russian maestro will play no official role in artistic-policy decisions. The first fruits of this new relationship could be savored at the recent Met revival of Boris Godunov, which mixed Kirov and Met vocal personnel to give Modest Mussorgsky’s rugged masterpiece a thoroughly international flavor.
The familiar stately 1974 production – sets by Ming Cho Lee with August Everding’s direction restaged by Phebe Berkowitz – remains unstartlingly traditional but none the worse for that. The epic sweep of history is effectively captured in the many fluid crowd scenes, while the private tragedy of the guilt-ridden czar Boris, his family, and his enemies is brought sharply into focus. The major new element is Igor Buketoff’s orchestration, the latest attempt to strike a mean between the composer’s weak original scoring and Rimsky-Korsakov’s glittering version, an edition that also involved a great deal of harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic recomposition in addition to a new instrumentation. Perhaps Buketoff has found the ideal compromise, at least for now, by preserving the best of both Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov: retaining the composer’s original notes as well as elements of Rimsky’s brilliant orchestration, but throwing out the latter’s more drastic editorial emendations. Of course a great deal of fine-tuning had to be done to reach even this compromise, and the musicological fights have already begun. Several more hearings will be needed before any firm pronouncements can be made, but to my ears the blend rings true, both musically and dramatically, and Gergiev’s sympathetic advocacy makes a persuasive case for it.
Unfortunately, there is a hole in the middle of the performance. Samuel Ramey is a dignified, velvet-toned Boris but not a very interesting one. Nothing about his interpretation carries much dramatic conviction; this is a singer who is not so much performing the role as announcing it – now I will overturn a table in terror, now I will tear down a curtain in a rage, now I will die and topple down a staircase. His American colleagues in the many small roles are more effective, especially Paul Plishka as a gruff and appealingly sad-voiced Pimen. The Russian contingent is headed by Olga Borodina, seven months pregnant but still a dangerously seductive Marina; Sergej Larin, in ringing voice and chameleonlike in appearance as Grigory, the unscrupulous pretender to Boris’s throne; and Sergei Leiferkus, as the oily, raspingly evil Jesuit priest, Rangoni. Only Constantin Plujnikov’s pallid Prince Shuisky and Iosef Shalamayev’s inexpressive Simpleton seem like unnecessary imports.
Apparently finding time on his hands, Gergiev also took on a two-week guest stint at the New York Philharmonic along with his Met dates – I caught up with him leading Mahler’s immense 90-minute Sixth Symphony only hours after presiding over a Boris matinee. If orchestra gossip can be believed, the conductor is not a favorite with many Met and Philharmonic musicians, who find him often unprepared, overhasty, and uncomfortable outside the Russian repertory. I have to say that this was just about the messiest Mahler Sixth I’ve ever heard, as well as being closer to the edge of the Mahlerian ledge than any Philharmonic interpretation since Bernstein’s. And yet despite the tempo uncertainties, sloppy attacks, and poor balances, the performance did generate an exciting sense of occasion, and how many conductors provide that these days? Gergiev may be one of a kind in that respect, the only international podium personality currently able to conjure up the old-fashioned maestro mystique of Bernstein, Karajan, Stokowski, et al. No wonder the Met is so tickled to have him around.