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'He Pulled Me Back So I Could Soar'

July 13, 2011 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

The Hal Leonard Corporation, which is known for making lovely books about musical matters and releasing them under its various imprints, has outdone itself with its salute to James Levine's 40th anniversary at the Metropolitan Opera. (In this case, the imprint is Amadeus Press and the book is, not surprisingly, titled James Levine: 40 Years at the Metropolitan Opera.)

The volume is pure celebration, which is understandable considering the circumstances; for the most part, don't go looking for great depth or incisive criticism here (though there are several essays by critics who assess Levine's contributions to raising the level of the orchestra and varying the Met's offerings). This generous paperback -- in both size and spirit -- is a great burst of color and quotes in honor of the conductor, who began on the Met podium at age 27. There is also reciprocal praise from the conductor for the many incomparable singers who responded to his baton in production after production, many of which are captured in stunning color and black-and-white images.

A quote from the sensational baritone Sherrill Milnes sets the tone that carries through these pages. "For me," Milnes said, "Jim was the first 'love conductor,' versus the old-time 'fear conductors.' I'm old enough to have worked with Karajan, Böhm, Bernstein, Solti, Leinsdorf, Reiner ... They were great conductors, but when you looked down at the pit, you were a little afraid. With Jim you had huge respect -- and love."

The book looks at each of the four decades in Levine's reign thus far. What's most interesting in this kind of structuring -- though it really shouldn't come as such a surprise -- is that it took Levine, so immediately praised for his effects, a number of years to really put his stamp on the opera company. I imagine that's the way it always is with any creative enterprise, even if we're talking about a Wunderkind.

Levine has always been praised for his attempts to expand the Met's repertoire, and the evidence of his efforts begins to appear near the end of the 1970s. There are splendid photos capturing scenes from Alban Berg's Lulu and Claude Debussy's Pelléas and Mélisande, which both appeared in 1977, and then Smetena's Bartered Bride in 1978, with the abundantly talented but often troubled Teresa Stratas.

Here is what she has to say about their relationship: "Jimmy? It's very hard to talk or write about him. I love and admire him beyond words. In our work together we needed few words. Our communication was through the music. Jimmy's music always reveals his enormous depth of spirit. This allowed me to do what I did best on stage: express the utter joy and grief of life. We served the work. No egos in the way. Some of my fondest memories are from after performances, when we just sat in the dressing room not talking. There were periods of my life when I was profoundly discouraged. Jimmy always managed to pull me back so I could soar on the strength of his musical wings. For two complicated people it was never complicated. It was clear and pure. A communion."

A few pages later comes a photo of perhaps Levine's first really trouble-making production, Wagner's Flying Dutchman, from March 1979. The conductor, who admits that the staging was "controversial," says of the experience: "I remember hearing a sound when the curtain came down at the end that I had never heard before: half the audience, 'Yay!' and half the audience, 'Boo!' It was unbelievable. The company performed it hotter and hotter from one performance to the next, because they believed in it very much.

Why was it controversial? A lot of good reasons. It had real imagination. It had a point of view. [Director Jean-Pierre] Ponnelle dared to put it on stage the way he saw it, as a kind of dream, so that he could use fantasy imagery, which is part of the legend. I mean, a realistic Fliegende Holländer isn't exactly much of anything."

And so began the 1980s, which Levine himself has called the low point of his career.

There are no references that I could find to the back pain that has been curtailing Levine's career with greater frequency these days. What the text and the photos repeatedly show is that, no matter his severe pain, Levine worked through it and also overcame the setbacks of the 1980s in order to triumph whenever he could. Most commentators actually attempt to ignore any bad news and traffic mostly in praise.

So if you can't get enough of this sort of thing -- memorable theatrical photos coupled with artists recalling how they contributed to the effects you've either seen in actuality or are seeing for the first time in freeze-frame -- then there's much beauty to be found in this lovingly composed tribute book.

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