NEW YORK (AP) — The cast walked off the stage and left conductor James Levine to watch and listen Saturday as the orchestra cheered and the Metropolitan Opera House audience broke into rhythmic applause.
He had just led his 2,557th performance with the company, where he debuted in 1971, his final staged opera during a 40-year run as music or artistic director.
With the 72-year-old Levine slowed by poor health for more than a decade and Parkinson's disease increasingly hampering his baton technique, the Met announced April 14 he will retire as music director at the end of this season.
The matinee of Mozart's "Die Entfuehrung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio)" was the end of an era. While Levine is scheduled to lead the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in concerts on May 19 and 26, and he plans to conduct three revivals in the house next season as music director emeritus, this was an opportunity for the company to show its appreciation for his decades of devotion that lifted the Met's music making to among the most acclaimed in the world.
Concertmaster David Chan handed a bouquet of red roses to Levine, who has conducted from a motorized wheelchair since his return in 2013 after a two-year layoff caused by a fall that led to spinal surgery. Levine tapped his heart repeatedly and blew kisses to the audience. The aisles near the pit were filled with spectators who wanted to get closer to take photos with their mobile phones, and even some of the orchestra members were snapping mementos.
"Thank you, Maestro, for your years of inspiration, artistry, and dedication to The Metropolitan Opera," the orchestra said in a statement posted on Instagram.
His reign is pretty much unparalleled for an opera music director, and he spanned several generations of singers. His first performance, Puccini's "Tosca" on June 5, 1971, starred Grace Bumbry, Franco Corelli and Peter Glossop; his first as music director, Puccini's "Il Trittico" on Oct. 15, 1976, featured the Met debuts of Hildegard Behrens and Neil Shicoff.
The top ticket price has escalated from $25 when Levine started as music director to $480 this season.
His baton was clearer Saturday than in his previous production, a revival of Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra" that began April 1. The cast for his finale — Albina Shagimuratova (Konstanze), Paul Appleby (Belmonte), Kathleen Kim (Blondchen), Brenton Ryan (Pedrillo), Hans-Peter Koenig (Osmin) — reveled to be under Levine's leadership and repeatedly applauded him. The crisp effervescence of Levine's Mozart was there, if not always the neat coordination of performances during his prime.
Met general manager Peter Gelb has not said who will replace Levine or when the next music director will take over. But Gelb openly admits it is impossible to expect a successor who will commit such time to a single company. Levine's epoch was unique.