NEW YORK (AP) — It wasn't opening night, it wasn't a new production, it wasn't even a gala — but it was nonetheless a momentous event in the history of the Metropolitan Opera: Conductor James Levine returned to the house he has called home for more than 40 years.
Before the orchestra had even played a note, the Met's music director — rolling his motorized wheelchair onto a specially constructed podium — was greeted by a 71-second standing ovation from the crowd that filled the 3,800-seat theater Tuesday night. Then he raised his baton for the overture to one of his favorite operas, Mozart's bittersweet comedy, "Cosi fan tutte."
Levine, 70, had been absent from the house for two full seasons because of injury and illness, and many had doubted he would ever reappear. But he led his beloved musicians like a man rejuvenated — waving the baton firmly in his right hand to set the beat, while gesturing with the fingers of his left hand to communicate nuances of phrasing to the players in the pit and the singers on stage.
This was prime Levine: a lithe, energetic, transparent account of Mozart's miraculous score, brisk but not rushed, polished and profound. His energy seemed never to flag throughout the long evening (nearly four hours, counting an unusually extended intermission.)
When the curtain fell and the soloists had taken their bows, soprano Susanna Phillips, who sang the lead role of Fiordiligi, re-emerged and ran to the apron of the stage, pumping her right arm and pointing to Levine. The audience responded with another huge ovation, while he in turn applauded the cast onstage and gave thumbs-up signs to the musicians, who themselves remained standing to cheer.
The 6-by-6-foot mechanical podium is designed to hoist his wheelchair up about 3 feet, while its interior can rotate 180 degrees, allowing him to turn to face the audience. It's the same podium he used in his return to conducting at Carnegie Hall last May.
Levine has been plagued by health issues for years, including a form of Parkinson's disease and numerous back problems. By 2010, he had to sit in a chair while conducting, and by the next year could no longer walk on stage to take his bows. Then in August 2011 he damaged a vertebra in a fall, leaving him with no feeling in his legs. In recent months he has started to walk again and he has said doctors hold out hope for a complete recovery at some point.
His return extends a phenomenal record that began on June 5, 1971, with Puccini's "Tosca." Over the decades, while he assumed the titles of music director and, for a time, artistic director as well, he has now conducted a total of 2,084 performances in the house — more than twice the number of his closest competitor, Artur Bodansky.
More important than sheer numbers, he has shaped the orchestra into an ensemble many consider one of the finest in the world.
Tuesday was the second night of the 2013-14 Met season, which opened Monday with a new production of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin." Levine is scheduled for a total of 24 performances of three operas: "Cosi," Verdi's "Falstaff" and Berg's "Wozzeck."