BWW Reviews: Triple-Threat at Carnegie Hall--DiDonato, Levine and the MET Orchestra

BWW Reviews: Triple-Threat at Carnegie Hall--DiDonato, Levine and the MET Orchestra

I remember seeing the great Austrian maestro Karl Bohm conduct the Vienna Philharmonic near the end of his long, illustrious career. The then-fragile conductor provoked the orchestra to grand playing with less than a nod of his head. If New York audiences expected anything like that when James Levine returned with the Met Orchestra after recovering from back surgery, they were happily mistaken. After a triumph in Mozart's COSI FAN TUTTE at the Met, Levine made it two in a row, as he returned with the orchestra and soloist Joyce DiDonato to Carnegie Hall early this week for a concert of far-reaching styles and depth.

From Mozart to Carter

The program started with the Overture to Verdi's I VESPRI SICILIANI, from 1855, in a pulsating performance that, if anything, overpowered the audience with its dynamics. Skip ahead 100 years to Elliott Carter's Variations for Orchestra, written between 1953-55.

Carter, who died at 103 years old in 2012, acknowledged that "his works could seem incomprehensible to listeners who were not grounded in the developments of 20th-century music," according to his obituary in The New York Times. He also admitted, said Alan Kozinn, that "trained musicians sometimes regarded his constructions as too difficult to grasp without intensive study." So where did this leave the concert's audience? In left field, despite the brilliance of the orchestra's playing, and the nuances coaxed out by Levine. This complex piece was simply not music to be enjoyed casually and, largely, listeners did not seem engaged, however esteemed the composer.

The audience in her hands

But even those who seemed battered by the Carter came alive when mezzo Joyce DiDonato took the stage. Stunning in a red gown, she held listeners in the palm of her hand, perfectly enhanced by Levine and the orchestra. The program highlighted her dramatic readings, as Donizetti's MARIA STUARDA and Rossini's LA DONNA DEL LAGO have recently done in full stagings.

DiDonato's part of the program began with "Giovanna d'Arco," a cantata by Rossini written after he retired from the operatic stage. This intensely dramatic monologue for Joan of Arc is short on vocal fireworks--at least, until the end of the 15-minute work--but long on elegant, flowing lines, which showed off DiDonato's breath control and bel canto style. After the intermission, the diva returned for a pair of arias from Mozart's LA CLEMENZA DI TITO. Sesto's aria "Deh, per questo istante solo" starts slowly and pensively, before catching fire, while "ecco il punto, o Vitellia ... Non piu di fiori" is a mini-opera of its own for Vitellia. The mezzo-soprano was radiant in both. I look forward to hearing her in a different mood, however, when she returns to the Met in Rossini's opera buffa, LA CENERENTOLA, next spring.

The concert ended with a bold-faced performance of Beethoven's Seventh. The symphonies of Beethoven are so familiar that it's easy to take them for granted. In their outstanding performance of the work, played with intensity and virtuosic brilliance, Levine and the MET Orchestra showed us that there's no such thing as a "war horse"--only masterworks that aren't appreciated nearly enough.

Photo: Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, Maestro James Levine and the MET Orchestra

Photo credit: Steve J. Sherman

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.