And this month, he's on the podium once more to lead a new production of Verdi's Falstaff, an opera he may know better than any other living maestro.
There have been great Met comebacks before. In the early part of the 20th century, after a highly promising debut, soprano Lucrezia Bori's career was interrupted when she developed nodes on her vocal cords, requiring a serious operation. On doctor's orders, she was not permitted to speak for several years, let alone sing. But in 1920, after a six-year convalescence, she returned to the Met as MimÐ in La Bohme, received an overwhelming response from the public, and went on to have one of the great Met careers. In 1941, Australian soprano Marjorie Lawrence was singing Brünnhilde in G‹tterd‹mmerung opposite Lauritz Melchior, but was then forced to cancel several years' worth of performances when she contracted polio. She too came back, delivering a wildly praised Venus in Tannh‹user two years later: even though she couldn't walk and gave her entire performance seated on a couch.
But perhaps no Met artist has made as significant and triumphant a comeback as Music Director James Levine this season. After more than two years away recovering from a serious spinal cord injury, a period during which he wondered if he would ever be able to perform again, Maestro Levine is once again back in the saddle, galvanizing the company and thrilling audiences. As he told the crowd at a recent Metropolitan Opera Guild luncheon in his honor, "Because of my artistic life commitment to the Met, returning to conducting there is truly like being reborn."
Maestro Levine gave a sneak peek at what was to come when he led the Met Orchestra in a rapturously received concert at Carnegie Hall last May, his first appearance in front of an audience in two years. Then, in September, he swept away any lingering doubts about his capabilities with an astonishing series of performances of Mozart's CosÐ fan tutte, which yielded him one of the giddiest, most prolonged rounds of applause in recent memory. As his CosÐ star Susanna Phillips said at the time, "He's not just back, he's back with a vengeance."
This month, Levine is once again on the Met podium: retrofitted by the Met's technical team to accommodate the wheelchair he currently uses: to lead the first new production of Verdi's Falstaff in 50 years. It's an opera Levine has conducted 56 times at the Met so far (the first time in 1972): far more than any other conductor. To have him at the helm of Robert Carsen's new staging, which has already won acclaim in London and Milan, is a fitting cap to this Verdi bicentennial year.
"Falstaff is the best," Levine says. "Bear in mind that the best is also inherently the most complicated. But if you put all the great human comedies together, Falstaff is the crme de la crme: it's the one that rises to the very top." Verdi's final opera, Falstaff is also his only major comedy and perhaps the single greatest ensemble work in the repertoire. The new production stars Italian bass Ambrogio Maestri in the title role, opposite Angela Meade, Lisette Oropesa, Stephanie Blythe, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Paolo Fanale, and Franco Vassallo. (A fascinating look at Levine in an early musical rehearsal with his cast can be viewed on the Met's website, at metopera.org/falstaff.)
Carsen has placed the action in the 1950s, identifying this post-World War II period as a moment when the aristocracy was declining in the face of a rising middle class. "Falstaff is quite unusual because it's a social comedy," Carsen says. "There's a real sense of time and period and social activity. You're in a very specific place with a group of people: family members, husband, wife, daughter, and so on: who all interact. So you need to create a context in which all of this situation comedy can develop." Set designer Paul Steinberg and costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel were able to "have a lot of fun," as Carsen puts it, as they created a world of faded grandeur, with great country estates gone to seed and a certain Edwardian elegance that's comically outdated in the context of the post-war setting.
When Carsen's production premiered in London, The Telegraph called it "a wonderful show... witty, well-sung, and magically staged." A critic for WQXR declared, "This Falstaff perfectly achieves the balance of music, storytelling, design, enchantment and that most elusive element: genuine human feeling."
Carsen agrees with Maestro Levine that Falstaff is a magisterial final statement from one of opera's colossal figures. "At the end of this extraordinary life," the director marvels, "Verdi was able to write something so fresh, so effervescent, but with this knowledge that, at a certain moment, the party's over. All of that is in this work. It is essentially a celebration of life and of living in the moment."
That's a concept Levine can perhaps relate to now more than ever. 'There's no doubt that I'm in a different state psychologically and emotionally than I would have been if I hadn't been injured and had just continued working," he says. "During the time I was recovering, I was inundated with phone calls, letters, and communications from the audience, from the company, from fans, from friends, from people I didn't even know, all saying, 'Just please do what you've got to do to get well, and come back soon.' It was an amazing thing, because I had been thinking to myself on and off, You know, maybe I've done this long enough already. And yet it seemed to me I had to try to come back if at all possible."
Falstaff runs through January 11.