With Levine Back At Juilliard, Young Voices Take Wing

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James Levine returned to Juilliard this week to conduct scenes from comic operas.  (Photos by Nan Melville)
James Levine returned to Juilliard this week for the first time since 2011 to conduct comic scenes from operas.
(Photos by Nan Melville)

By George Loomis

NEW YORK – The Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony were not the only musical organizations affected by James Levine’s health problems in recent years. On a lesser scale, the creative partnership between the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and the Juilliard School, which began so promisingly in 2011 with a Levine-led Bartered Bride, was also left to soldier on without him.

Tenor Mario Chang sang arias from 'L'Elisir d'amore.
Mario Chang sang two of Nemorino’s arias from ‘L’elisir d’amore.’

Now Levine is back, with Met runs of Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Verdi’s Falstaff, plus two Met Orchestra concerts already behind him and rehearsals for a revival of Berg’s Wozzeck about to begin.

On Feb. 11, he returned to Juilliard’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater to preside over the latest Met-Juilliard collaboration – a concert of operas that included large chunks of two comedies,Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, as well as music from Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini. And Stravinsky’s 25-minute Mavra was ably conducted by Daniel Stewart, a member of the Lindemann program.

As at the Met, Levine conducted from a motorized wheelchair, which he maneuvered through the center of the orchestra and onto a large podium. And as before, his lingering physical afflictions did not inhibit his gestures in conducting.  

Levine may not be readily identified with comedy, but at the Met he has conducted just about every comic opera universally acknowledged to be great, including the three he participated in here. More readily apparent than any especially detectable comic flair on his part, however, was his celebrated ability to inspire young singers to give  their best, which triggered memories of his opera performances with Tanglewood fellows at the Boston Symphony’s summer home.

Andrew Stenson and Ryan Speedo Green in a duet from 'Entführung.'
Andrew Stenson and Ryan Speedo Green in a duet from ‘Entführung.’

You felt the same sense of thorough involvement by the singers at the start of Entführung, of which Act I was performed complete and constituted perhaps the high point of a hugely rewarding evening. The initial confrontation between tenor Andrew Stenson, as Belmonte, and  bass Ryan Speedo Green, as Osmin — both enunciating in crisp German and resourcefully directed by Edward Berkeley — served notice that although this was nominally a concert, the performances would have strong dramatic underpinning.

Both sang persuasively, too,  Stenson displaying a sweet tenor voice and phrasing stylishly, Green singing with a dark, well-rounded sound and ample menace. Their fine performances provided ideal preparation for the arrival of the gifted soprano Ying Fang, who gave an enchanting performance of Konstanze’s splendid two-tempo aria, “Ach, ich liebte,” full of poise and feeling, with its moments of brilliance enlisted as additional means of expression. The role is a kind of incipient Donna Anna and can profit from a bigger voice than Fang’s, but her sound, clear and true, projected very nicely.

Fang, who made a mark as Mme. Podtochina’s daughter in the Met’s revival this season of Shostakovich’s The Nose, was a welcome presence in all three of the Levine-led excerpts. She proved a delight in Teresa’s aria at the start of Benvenuto Cellini, in which the seventeen-year-old first wrestles with whether to rendezvous with Cellini and, after resolving the issue affirmatively, observes in a sparkling cabalette that there will be ample opportunity for good behavior later in life. In the latter half of Act I of L’elisir, Fang nicely balanced Adina’s concealed love for Nemorino with a teasing show of indifference.

Caption coming.
Mario Chang, Ying Fang, and Pureum Jo in a scene from ‘L’elisir.’

Fang dominated the female leads, but several highly promising tenors were on hand. Besides Stenson, there was Anthony Kalil, who made a favorable impression as Cellini with his aggressive pursuit of Teresa. Best of all was Mario Chang, who brought firm, ringing tone to Nemorino’s display of bravado in “Esulti pur la barbara” and heartfelt pathos to “Adina, credimi.” The concert offered less opportunity for low-voiced men. In addition to Green, who also sang Dulcamara, the evening brought Alexey Lavrov as a suitably blustery Sgt. Belcore (L’elisir).

Mavra was good to hear, but one could understand why it doesn’t turn up more, despite its Pushkin-derived story about Parasha, a girl who gains proximity to her lover, the Hussar, by disguising him as her mother’s new cook. An early example of Neo-Classicism, Mavra (1922), here sung in English, has engaging vocal lines with displaced accents, and it parodies standard opera accompaniments cleverly, but it lacks musical variety, and despite its brevity, interest flags. Mary-Jane Lee, singing with a brightly assertive, take-charge soprano, was excellent as Parasha, and Benjamin Bliss brought a lyrical tenor of notable beauty to the Hussar.

As part of its responsibilities, the Juilliard Orchestra gave vital performances of the overtures to Entführung and Cellini under Levine, though its string sound lacked a rich sheen. With just two chairs as props, Berkeley’s astute direction showed how much can be done to enliven operas in concert, even finding variety in male formal dress. The program will be repeated on Feb. 14 and 16; for details, click here.

With the Met-Juilliard partnership, a credible Mini-Met – so long desired – is at hand. If only a way could be found to quadruple or quintuple its offerings from just one a year, energized by Levine’s galvanizing presence when possible.

George Loomis writes regularly for the International New York Times and is a New York correspondent for Opera magazine.