James Levine has conducted nearly 90 different operas at the Met: but never Don Pasquale, until just a few weeks ago. Four decades into his unparalleled Met career, Maestro Levine is still adding new works to his company rep. He continues his run of performances of Donizetti's charming comedy this month, with the November 13 matinee seen live in high definition in movie theaters around the world. So what compels the maestro to keep adding to his vast and wide-ranging repertoire?
"Well, I think after 40 years it's inevitable that I would have performed a large repertoire!" Levine says. "We're always trying to improve the quality of what we do by adding new and different repertory. Performing, for example, Wozzeck or Pell_as more often makes us sharper in response to all operatic styles. In the same way, our Carnegie Hall symphonic concerts add further depth and detail to the abilities of the orchestra. The more music we play, the more we improve across the board."
In the case of Don Pasquale, this season's revival offers Levine the chance to perform what he considers "one of the great human comedies. Pasquale is on a very short list of operas that are comic but also moving, with real human experience. Other operas from this category are Le Nozze di Figaro, Falstaff, Die Meistersinger, Der Rosenkavalier, Gianni Schicchi, and The Bartered Bride. In a comic opera like Pasquale, the singers play the situations seriously: that's what makes them funny, and it can be very difficult to capture. But that's the secret to the human comedies: as opposed to burlesque, slapstick, et cetera."
Comedies, of course, make up just a small percentage of the operatic canon. Levine made his Met debut with Puccini's sensational melodrama Tosca, in 1971, and though the composer is not as central to his repertoire as Verdi, Wagner, or Mozart, the maestro feels he gets a bad rap. "Some people try to disparage Puccini," he says. " 'This is cheap,' or 'This is too melodramatic.' Or 'This is a shabby little shocker.' But the truth is his operas stay in the foreground for a simple reason: their theatrical strength and musical inspiration are obvious: and audiences love them."
There are other composers whose work Met audiences have been less familiar with: until Levine demonstrated their musical and theatrical value. Alban Berg, for example, whose Lulu Levine brought to the Met for the first time and whose Wozzeck he made a staple of the company repertory. Levine has also made it a point to conduct the works of Berlioz, one of his favorite composers, as often as the Met schedule allows, refreshing Les Troyens for the company's centennial and adding a new production in 2003; introducing Benvenuto Cellini; and conducting Robert Lepage's 2008 new production of La Damnation de Faust, a work he had already led with the orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Over the years he has also conducted the work of such diverse composers as Weill, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Bart‹k, Schoenberg, Ravel, and Poulenc, to name just a few.
And then, of course, there are the great classic composers: Mozart, Strauss, Verdi, and Wagner: with whom Levine has shown himself to be a master. Having introduced La Clemenza di Tito and Idomeneo to the Met in the early 1980s, Levine has no fewer than seven works in his company repertoire by the composer he calls "one of the most ideal, perfect geniuses in history." This season he conducts both Simon Boccanegra and Il Trovatore, adding to his nearly 600 Verdi performances at the Met, including the company premieres of Stiffelio and I Lombardi. The first Strauss opera he conducted at the Met was Salome, in the 1973 _74 season, but the maestro "gradually realized that my love for Rosenkavalier, Ariadne, and Elektra was stronger than my love for Salome, at least with respect to conducting it. Ariadne has such a unique effect that I'm fresh for it all the time. With Rosenkavalier, after a long series of performances, I need to put it away and rest it for a while: and then I can't wait to bring it back. Plšcido Domingo used to say, 'Whenever I do Don Carlo, I inevitably feel the need to put it away. Then two years go by, and I have to do it again.' It's the same for me with Rosenkavalier.
"The Wagner operas," he continues, "we schedule as regularly as casting and rehearsal time allow. And we try never to be too far from the Ring." Levine has conducted 21 complete cycles of Otto Schenk's production at the Met (not to mention every cycle of Alfred Kirchner's production at the Bayreuth Festival from 1994 to 1998). He opened the Met's current season with Robert Lepage's new production of Das Rheingold, and he'll lead the new Die Walk‹re in the spring. (He'll also conduct the full cycle in the spring of 2012.) "After 21 cycles of Schenk's staging since 1989, it's time for a new production," he says. "I suppose one could hardly have a more appropriate or daunting: anniversary challenge!"