Control Freaks

Has New York City ever nurtured a classical musician more extravagantly admired than James Levine? Leonard Bernstein, regularly lambasted by local critics during his day, is surely looking down, green with envy. Not since Arturo Toscanini called the city home more than half a century ago has a conductor received such gushing praise every time he lifts a baton (at least from the Times’s reviewers, whose uncritical endorsement of everything he does weighs heavily as daily music journalism continues to evaporate). The ovations seemed louder than ever last month as Levine worked overtime at the Met, appearing an average of every other night conducting such bagatelles as Parsifal, Ariadne auf Naxos, Nabucco, and Lulu. The climax came in Carnegie Hall, when the Met orchestra, chorus, and a starry array of soloists presented two blockbuster choral works: the Verdi Requiem and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder.

I wonder if any musician anywhere has ever tried to sustain a schedule that grueling; one sometimes has to worry about Levine as he doggedly rehearses, conducts, and drives himself on. From where I sit, he neither moves nor looks like a well man, although according to official word he is just fine, and one has no choice but to believe that. The press has always been scrupulously respectful of this famously secretive and enigmatic man’s private life, if he has time for one, and few beyond his fiercely protective inner circle can really know how he is, much less who he is. Be that as it may, the sleek musical juggernaut that Levine has built at the Met over the years functioned at peak efficiency last month. Also never in doubt were the abilities of the workaholic who keeps the machine so well oiled, a man with a gift for practical music-making just as amazing today as it was 30 years ago.

Even at that, a few revisionists are still perverse enough not to canonize Levine. Reviews from Europe, particularly London, are often blisteringly dismissive about orchestral performances some critics consider jejune, rootless, and without a central core of feeling despite the smooth execution and attention to detail. These, of course, are subjective reactions due, at least in part, to years of comparative listening and hearing other conductors perform the same repertory. Even in New York, some question the depth of Levine’s interpretations and find his ability to grasp and explore a score’s interior world insufficient. Perhaps that explains why his deluxe presentation of the Verdi Requiem left me unmoved. The orchestra’s huge dynamic range and broad dramatic gestures were certainly impressive, while the solo quartet – Renée Fleming, Olga Borodina, Marcello Giordani, and René Pape – could not have been more vocally glamorous. But in the end it all sounded emotionally disconnected, a synthetic and prepackaged event.

The Gurrelieder performance was much more like the real thing. This gargantuan score stretches the materials of late German Romanticism to the limits, and it inhabits a complex musical world in which Levine seems most at home these days. The density of simultaneous events is staggering, but I think more reached my ear on this occasion than in any other live reading I’ve ever heard. That Levine could prepare a performance of such discipline and detail at the end of a busy season is miraculous in itself. Perhaps with more rehearsal time the balances would have been better judged. That was a pity, since Deborah Voigt, Violeta Urmana, and Ben Heppner, when they could be heard, indicated that the Gurrelieder had at last found its ideal vocal interpreters. I also missed the white-hot spiritual purity that courses through this extraordinary work, an intangible poetic quality that made the Philadelphia Orchestra performance conducted by Simon Rattle last year so unforgettable. But in his own way, James Levine told us precisely who he is, even if some of us continue to find the message perplexing and incomplete.

The idea of staging Stravinsky’s great 1911 ballet Petrushka as a puppet show accompanied by two pianos may seem a bit startling at first, but then again, why not? The paradoxical implication is rather delicious: Instead of a real dancer playing a puppet who comes to life and dies, here is a real puppet who comes to life as an idealized human being and achieves immortality. It’s almost a certainty that Stravinsky himself would have appreciated the extra layer of artifice. And although this composer was a master orchestrator, he always worked at the piano, and virtually everything he wrote, even the late serial works, sound that much more harmonically pungent and rhythmically defined when articulated by keyboard instruments.

The puppeteer Basil Twist recently unveiled his version of Petrushka at the Clark Studio Theater as part of Lincoln Center’s “New Visions” series, and an amazing tour de force it was. The approach he uses here is an ingenious combination of traditional Japanese bunraku puppet theater and the techniques of Czech black theater. Petrushka, the Blackamoor, and the Ballerina are four-foot-tall figures, each manipulated by three onstage, barely visible puppeteers in black.

Creating the rich atmosphere of a Russian Shrovetide carnival is an element that Twist may still want to work on – the onion-dome abstractions, disembodied hands, flowers on sticks, circles whirling in space, and such don’t really fill the bill (a performing bear, all claws and teeth, is an inspired exception). The personalities of the three protagonists, though, with their dazzling movements and feverish interactions, are brilliantly imagined, wonderfully expressive, and breathtakingly realized. The Russian twins Julia and Irina Elkina expertly played their two-piano arrangement of Stravinsky’s own four-hand version, prefacing the hour-long entertainment with a deft reading of the composer’s 1943-44 Sonata for Two Pianos. At the end, nine velvet-clad puppeteers emerged, drenched in sweat after what was obviously a tough physical workout but also an act of love.

James Levine
Conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus at Carnegie Hall.
The Stravinsky ballet staged by puppeteer Basil Twist at Clark Studio Theater.

Control Freaks