Levine and the Met face uphill climb

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THE Metropolitan Opera has closed its 102nd season, and is in the midst of its last official tour in the United States. The next opening night, Sept. 22, will be James Levine's first as artistic director. He will lead a new production of Wagner's ``Die Walk"ure'' (the beginning of a long-awaited ``Ring'' cycle, and one that will be recorded by Deutsche Grammophon Records). This will complete Levine's ascent to the top of the musical/artistic ladder he has been climbing since the early 1970s.

The question, naturally, is: Will things change with Levine in the new position? It's hard to imagine that things could get much worse than they were this year. Artistically, the season was a shambles. The reasons are numerous, many of them due to the often inexplicable plans of former casting director Joan Ingpen (who, incidentally, remains as the Met's European talent scout).

Miss Ingpen had been brought in to fix up the rehearsal schedules that were in disarray, and this she did with great success. But then casting was delegated to her, because others in higher positions either did not want to bother, or else did not want to bear the brunt of any blame that a grumbling public or press might cast on them.

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So the Met, even this past season, was stuck with some terrible casting moments. Tops on my list included Hildegard Behrens's Santuzza, Ernesto Veronelli's Canio, Mignon Dunn's Kostelnicka, Jeannette Pilou's Nedda (and later, Micaela), David Rendall's Idomeneo, and Giuliano Ciannella's Don Carlo. Of the matinee radio broadcasts, the most disturbing was Gail Gilmore's Kundry in ``Parsifal'' -- a last-minute replacement, but a singer already slated to sing Venus in next season's revival of ``Tannh"auser.''

But there were a few thrilling evenings -- four productions out of 22, in fact. A superb Verdi ``Falstaff'' featured a mostly Italian cast that proved to be a superb ensemble, but it was broken up after the third performance. The ``Lohengrin'' boasted not only the Elsa of Eva Marton, but also Leonie Rysanek's thrilling Ortrud. Handel's ``Samson'' was mounted for tenor Jon Vickers, and his galvanizing portrayal of the title role did not disappoint. Finally, there was an ``A"ida'' with not a weak link in the principal quartet. It is not inappropriate that Levine conducted all but the Handel, which was placed in the assured hands of Julius Rudel.

It has become almost a clich'e to note that Levine has built the orchestra into one of the most consistent opera ensembles in the world today. But he used to say that he also wanted to create an artistic environment that would be irresistible to the best singers in the world. He still has the potential to do just that. And if Levine himself cares not to deal with the minutiae that that goal entails, then the Met must find someone else.

For when all is said and done, the excuse that planning 30-32 weeks of high-quality opera (seven times a week) is impossible in this voice-scarce age, is simply not good enough. No one expects the Met to offer only the greatest every night of the week. But the balance between superstar evenings and the careful deploying of merely good singers in other productions could bring the house back to the sort of intermittent glory it used to offer on a more consistent basis.

Then there is the question of new productions. In theory, a new production should be planned only when the old production is either too shabby or so inferior as to demand replacement. The Met's not-so-old ``Le nozze di Figaro'' was never good. This season's new Jean-Pierre Ponnelle staging looked good only on TV; unfortunately, operagoers will have to stare at all that ugliness at $80 (or more) a ticket for as long as the house keeps it in repertoire. Mussorgsky's ``Khovanshchina'' received a minimal production that highlighted the work's weaknesses.

The new ``Carmen'' was no improvement on the old one (which used to look fine, at least until lighting director Gil Wechsler redid the lighting and made it all look quite ugly). And how such a dull production and such a shockingly misguided impersonation of the title role by Maria Ewing could have been allowed to happen is but one of the questions this house has to begin addressing.

Another question involves the low reputation the house has among singers in Europe today. And this season, with the mysterious disappearance of Mara Zampieri after the final dress rehearsal of Verdi's ``Don Carlo'' (which the New York Times has since reported as a firing), European singers have even less to be happy about. If a contracted singer is deemed to be less than Met standard, why wait until the final dress rehearsal to do something about it?

The lack of judgment on new productions, on the best use of singers at the Met's disposal, and on ways to attract conductors who do not perform at the Met and the star singers in Europe who don't or won't sing here -- all this adds up to the need for a real company head to take charge.

It also means that Levine faces a tremendous challenge, as does the new general manager, Bruce Crawford. Next year, they will be in a position to begin implementing the sort of plans that could fairly quickly restore the Met to its past glory. The sooner, the better.

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