Opera's Endangered Species: the Traditionally Trained Conductor

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IT is not surprising that opera has been modernized over the years. Television now dominates our view of entertainment. Technology has radically transformed what we accept as theater. Supersonic flight makes it possible for singers to cross oceans in a few hours. Much of the change has been for the good, but one modernization saddens me: the waning of the traditionally trained opera conductor.

This idea came into focus because of some performances at the Metropolitan Opera - a magnificent Verdi ``Don Carlo'' and a rousing Johann Strauss ``Die Fledermaus.''

My thoughts were triggered by something that happened recently in ``Il Trovatore.'' The Met's artistic director, James Levine, had launched his orchestra into a scene finale at too brisk a clip.

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The Azucena, Fiorenza Cossotto (singing what very well may be the final Met performance of her distinguished career), entered at a slightly slower pace. Within no time at all, Mr. Levine had slowed the orchestra down to her tempo.

What was amazing about the moment was that Levine's awareness of the problem and its solution were instant, barely perceptible, and uncommonly smooth.

Of course, this is what makes him such a superb opera conductor. I realized that it was the sort of alertness to every aspect of a performance that was once the norm, yet is fast becoming the exception.

Why is this? In the first half of the century, the great conductors learned their craft in small, out-of-the-way European opera houses, many of which no longer function. Today's crop of budding maestros, however, are taught mainly in conservatories. Where once the training was on-the-job in an opera pit, today it is mostly in front of symphony orchestras.

Levine did not learn his craft in Europe, but rather at the right hand of the late George Szell in Cleveland. Mr. Szell had been a formidable opera man, though he rarely ventured into the genre in the last two decades of his life. Levine also grew up absorbed in opera. In fact, few musicians can talk about operatic traditions and the singers who exemplified them with such specific knowledge and insight. And he applies them in the opera house, as was so thrillingly the case in the ``Don Carlo.''

Levine has, with one season's exception, been the conductor of this production since it was new in 1979. Yet he has never been more magnificent in this music - Verdi, conducted in a way that is at once vivid and sensitive, grandiose and intimate, majestic and searingly beautiful. His cast rose to the challenges of this epic work with consistent fervor. There were flaws, but no real weaknesses.

RUGGERO RAIMONDI'S bass may lack sheer beauty and the requisite strength in the low register, but he presented the tortured Philip II tellingly.

Tatiana Troyanos made a fiery, proud Eboli. Margaret Price is an imaginative, communicative actress, and her soprano is a thing of extravagant beauty. Thus, much of her Elisabetta was haunting, though the uppermost notes in her range no longer match the rest of the instrument, and often mar her otherwise splendid impact.

The biggest surprises of the evening were tenor Neil Shicoff and baritone Bernd Weikl as Carlo and Posa, respectively. Mr. Shicoff, in peak form, not only sang like the star he is - such a thrilling throb in the sound, such a ring in the high notes, such awareness of style and phrasing - but acted with a rare simplicity and effectiveness.

Mr. Weikl's burnished, sumptuous baritone filled out Posa's music with unforgettable presence and eloquence, and he showed us the soldier ill-at-ease mingling with royalty. In short, he proved a magnificent Verdian. The two interacted histrionically and vocally with rare impact.

In all, this was the Met in its grandest glory, and the best ``Don Carlo'' I have ever heard.

The Met also did well by its revival of ``Die Fledermaus,'' after two terrible misfire years. Why? Because in chosing veteran conductor Julius Rudel, the house ensured that the score would finally be conducted with respect and panache. The Waltz King has rarely been better served, and the Met orchestra, so glorious in Verdi, was all froth and airiness here.

The cast was excellent, from Barbara Daniels's dazzling star-turn as Rosalinda and Haken Hagagard's suave and elegant Eisenstein to Barbara Bonney's lively, amusing Adele, Neil Rosenshein's droll Italian-tenor parody as Alfred, Troyanos's Orlofsky, and Dale Duesing's stalwart Falke.

The dialogue was severely cut (thank goodness!), and, thanks to inspired singing and conducting, this ``Fledermaus'' took wing.

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