Levine mastered an enormous breadth of repertory: no Handel, hardly any postmodernists, but almost everything in between. He delegated much of the Russian repertory to Valery Gergiev, who served as principal guest conductor from 1997 to 2008. But otherwise, nearly everything seemed fair game. Levine eschewed some of the niceties of the early music movement, largely because of the Met’s gargantuan size. But his Mozart could sound glorious in the best Vienna Philharmonic manner, reinforced by his frequent guest appearances with that orchestra and its presence at the Salzburg Festival, where he made his debut in 1976. Aside from the canonical standards, Levine championed Idomeneo and La clemenza di Tito. From the 19th century, there was Fidelio but also Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, Berlioz (Benvenuto Cellini and the complete Troyens), and of course Verdi and Puccini.
Levine’s affinity with the Italians, and indeed with the music of all composers, was based on his love for singing and singers. He attracted the best, even if the most recent golden age was fading by the 1970s, and allowed their phrasing to inform his conducting and his orchestra’s playing; he didn’t subserviently follow them, but he breathed with them. He was a coach, conductor, teacher and therapist. ‘I could go where they pay four or five times what I get at the Met,’ Plácido Domingo once said. ‘But the other places do not offer the opportunity to work with Jim.’
Levine had sympathy for some French operas, but it was in the music of the first half of the 20th century that he revitalized the Met’s repertory. He championed Berg and Schoenberg, Stravinsky (The Rake’s Progress and a magical triple bill of Le Sacre du printemps, Le Rossignol and Oedipus Rex) and Weill and Gershwin. Beyond them, though, he found little to admire. He spoke longingly of Messiaen’s St François d’Assise, but never could bring it to fruition. He did lead premieres of works by Corigliano (The Ghosts of Versailles) and Harbison (The Great Gatsby), but delegated or ignored the postmodernists, especially Glass, whose Satyagraha and Akhnaten, both in productions from ENO, became big Met hits.
Some complained that Levine lacked personality as a conductor, that he failed to put a particular individual stamp on what he conducted. His music-making sounded safe and sane but often deeply satisfying, as he seemed to vanish into the music. I remember with special fondness his Troyens—it went on for ever and never seemed a note too long—and his Wagner, especially Die Meistersinger and Parsifal, which he conducted at Bayreuth in 1982 for its centenary production. His conservatism carried over to his initial resistance to surtitles, mitigated by the general manager Joseph Volpe’s back-of-each-seat Met Titles. He also resisted the more extreme forms of Regietheater. But that didn’t mean all his new productions were bland. His favourite director-designer, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, was hardly ungifted. From 1975 to 1981 he was part of a Met leadership triumvirate with Anthony Bliss as general manager and John Dexter as director of productions; Dexter provided some of the most memorable, captivating stagings in the company’s history.
Levine never achieved the same success with symphonic repertory that he enjoyed in opera. He held leadership positions at the Ravinia Festival (the summer home of the Chicago Symphony), the Munich Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony, but his tenure in Boston (2004-11) was blighted and finally cut short by illness. He was active at Verbier, too, and frequently led performances with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics.
Opera, May 2021