The most thrilling moment in an evening full of thrills at the Metropolitan Opera's first performance of Cosi Fan Tutte last night came before a single note was played. James Levine sneaked into the pit for final adjustments to his special wheelchair, and no sooner was the familiar back of his head visible than the house burst into thunderous applause.
When the spotlight found him and he swiveled his mechanized chair around to face the audience, shouts of "Bravo" cascaded down from all levels of the house and the entire audience and orchestra stood for an ovation that crescendoed and carried on for several minutes to welcome Levine back to the Met podium for the first time in over two years while he recovered from spinal cord surgery.
The emotional tribute was no simple, sentimental gesture for a conductor's miraculous comeback from a serious injury. The Lincoln Center Met is essentially a house that Levine built. He conducted his first opera there in 1971 and has been principal conductor, music director, or artistic director for the past 40 years.
Over those decades Levine has shaped the Met Opera Orchestra into one of the foremost ensembles in the world, and he has made the Met a home for the world's leading operatic singers. General managers have come and gone, but Levine has been the guiding musical force at the Met, and he maintains a strong relationship with the current general manager, Peter Gelb, who has said Levine is welcome to stay as long as he wants.
The excellence of the Met Orchestra has remained high under the various conductors who have held the baton during Levine's absence, especially the current principal conductor, Fabio Luisi. But it has rarely sounded better than it did for the first Cosi Fan Tutte of the new season in a lively and delightful revival of Mozart's comic opera on the fickleness of women and the naïvete of men in matters of the heart.
It's a performance that audiences around the world will be able to see in the spring when the Met offers it as part of its Live in HD series on April 26.
Mozart wrote the opera in a hurry in 1790 on commission from Emperor Joseph II, who also dictated the subject matter. Two young Neapolitan officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, are engaged to two sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, and are so certain of their betrotheds' constancy they wager on it with their friend Don Alfonso, who devises an elaborate test.
The officers agree to pretend to be sent off to war but in fact disguise themselves as two Albanian nobles and woo each other's fiancée. Alfonso, with the help of the girls' maid, Despina, contrives a series of encounters that are at once funny, poignant, and revealing. This Met revival boasts an excellent young cast that captures not only all the frivolity inherent in the situation, but the serious ramifications for the course of true love if the officers succeed.
The soprano Susanna Phillips is excellent as Fiordiligi, especially in her moving and soaring aria "Come scoglio," while the mezzo Isabel Leonard captures the sassy nature of Dorabella and sings a lovely "smanie implacabili." The tenor Matthew Polenzani delivers a breathtaking rendition of the touching aria "Un'aura amorosa," his pianissimo passages barely a whisper that carries to every corner of the house, and the Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov adds a solid performance as Guglielmo.
Danielle de Niese, a young Australian soprano, is a joy as Despina, her acting and singing reminiscent of a young Kathleen Battle, and the Italian bass Maurizio Muraro contributes a fine turn as Don Alfonso, marked by lovely phrasing. In the pit, Howard Watkins provides an unerring harpsichord continuo.
Cosi is an opera long associated with Levine and it is an apt choice for his return to the Met podium. He will conduct two more operas this season - a new Falstaff in December and a revival of Wozzeck with Deborah Voigt in March.
When the final curtain calls came last night, Levine remained seated in the pit, and after the singers took their bows, the spotlight fell on him again. The audience, orchestra, and cast were all on their feet applauding a triumphant return of the man who restored the Met to the pinnacle of the opera world.