James Levine conducts The MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall – Verdi, Elliott Carter & Beethoven – Joyce DiDonato sings Rossini & Mozart

I vespri Siciliani – Overture
Variations for Orchestra
Rossini, orch. Salvatore Sciarrino
Giovanna d’Arco
La clemenza di Tito, K621 – Deh, per questo istante solo; Ecco il punto … Non più di fiori
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano)

The MET Orchestra
James Levine

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 13 October, 2013
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

James Levine. Photograph: Koichi Miura/Metropolitan Opera James Levine and the MET Orchestra visited Carnegie Hall for the first of three concerts during this 2013-14 Season. As he had when the orchestra performed here in May, Levine conducted from his motorized chair. He has now also returned to the pit in the Metropolitan Opera House, leading the recent run of Così fan tutte, as he will future productions of Falstaff and Wozzeck.

The concert began with a performance of the Overture to Verdi’s The Sicilian Vespers that emphasized the work’s recurring martial drumbeats and bombastic tutti passages over the gentler contributions of flute, burnished cellos and violins. Levine and the Met Orchestra then played Elliott Carter’s Variations for Orchestra, dedicating the performance to the memory of the composer, who died last November at the age of 103. Levine has long championed this piece, composed in the early 1950s, in which Carter approached the concept of variation in a manner quite different from the traditional, imbuing the score with wide variants in melody, rhythm, timbre and, most significantly, tempo. In addition to a main theme that appears in various guises throughout the work, Carter introduces two additional motifs that function as ritornellos, alternately appearing in six of the work’s nine sections, but changing in speed at each occurrence until they are barely recognizable in the finale. There is simply too much going on in this often densely textured music to be taken in all at once, so its success ultimately depends less on Carter’s intellectually fascinating writing than on its perceptible sounds and rhythms. Levine led a precise and balanced performance in which the orchestra showed off with virtuosity Carter’s rich palette of colors, including two harps and a large array of percussion, making for a compelling and interesting experience. Noteworthy contributions included numerous solos by concertmaster David Chan and fine contributions on flute, oboe and viola, and excellent playing from other quarters.

Joyce DiDonato. Photograph: Virgin Classics ©NIck HeavicanThe first half concluded with Joyce DiDonato in a scintillating rendition of Rossini’s dramatic scena, Giovanna d’Arco. Originally written for voice and piano, it was orchestrated in 1989 by Salvatore Sciarrino for the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro. DiDonato brings her characters vividly to life, and she did so here, portraying Joan of Arc at the point of leaving behind her home and family to do battle for France. DiDonato was masterful in navigating the challenging coloratura passages. Beginning softly as Joan waits in the silence of night, DiDonato’s voice built in intensity as Joan responds to the call to do combat – even though summoned by the Angel of Death – climaxing with the cry of “Viva il Re, la vittoria è con me” (Long live the King, victory is with me).

After intermission DiDonato returned in two selections from La clemenza di Tito, both sharing the confession of guilt. In ‘Deh, per questo istante solo’ Sesto bids farewell to Tito, who has just sentenced him to death, expressing regret that he had betrayed the emperor. In the recitative ‘In Ecco il punto’, Vitellia, whose love for Tito had previously been rejected, decides to admit inducing Sesto’s betrayal, and in the ensuing ‘Non più di fiori’ resolves to face death rather than accept Tito’s belated offer of marriage. DiDonato brought vocal brilliance, dramatic phrasing and striking portrayals to both arias finally engaging in a virtual conversation with James Ognibene’s exceptional basset horn solos.

In Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony Levine drew committed playing that communicated the music’s pervasive wit and high spirits. In the Poco sostenuto introduction he attacked the opening chords fiercely, building suspense until the flutes launched the Vivace, which was infused with tripping energy. The strings were smooth and unified, winds blended admirably, and the timpani added just the right rhythmic accents. Levine observed the exposition repeat and brought explosive force to the coda. The middle and lower strings, particularly the violas, sang out beautifully as they intoned the theme of the monumental Allegretto, in which each instrumental voice came through with clarity, especially in the fugato, until the chord that had begun the movement returned to end it, fading away to virtually nothing. The scherzo was jolly, proceeding at a speedy pace that contrasted nicely with the twice-repeated trio in which horns, flutes and bassoons were stand-outs. The coda, with its false start of a third trio followed by five concluding chords, came through quite humorously. That jocular spirit continued in the finale – a fairly wild gallop, with sudden stops and starts and syncopated accents underscored by the timpani. In the lengthy coda, Levine’s left-hand spun furiously as the strings played swirling figures above the gradually descending double bass line and long-held notes in the winds. A fff outburst led into the triumphant closing bars, cueing thunderous applause.

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