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Unrelated to the pandemic, in fact more than a year before the rush to closure, the Met announced that its stage would be dark during all of February 2021. The winter month had proven to be particularly slow. In compensation, the season would be extended into June 2021. Covid rendered the matter moot for the moment. Plans for 2021-2022 adhere to the revised calendar.
Despite the shutdown, the Met was again in the news in March 2021. The death of James Levine in Palm Springs on March 9 at the age of 77 was widely reported eight days later. The cause was pronounced to have been cardiopulmonary arrest with Parkinson’s Disease as a contributing factor. The many obituaries and articles surrounding Levine’s life and the long-brewing scandal that ended his illustrious forty-six-year career as the Met’s conductor, music and artistic director tell the story of the rise and fall of one of the most powerful and influential actors in the history of the company.
The orchestra Levine developed into one of the world’s most admired instrumental ensembles over his decades on 39th Street and at Lincoln Center was, it too, in the news in March. Met musicians had been furloughed without pay since the previous April. A day after word of Levine’s death reached the readers of the New York Times, the musicians’ union agreed to come to the bargaining table in exchange for partial pay for its members for eight weeks while negotiations were in progress. That management would be demanding permanent cuts in orchestra salaries to help off-set the $150 million loss in earned revenue incurred since the start of the lock-down was made explicit at the outset. The offer had been on the table since December. The Met chorus had accepted a similar deal in February. In fact, the Met orchestra was the last of U.S. major ensembles to consent, however reluctantly, to partial pay. The cost to the orchestra had been high. Ten of its ninety-seven members had opted to retire during the pandemic, in stunning contrast to the two or three who would make their exit in a typical year. Many had felt obliged to leave New York City for less expensive communities near and far. A few had sold their instruments in order to pay their bills while on unemployment.
The cancellations in March 2021 included a new production of Don Giovanni (Peter Mattei, Gerard Finley, Ailyn Pérez, Isabel Leonard), and revivals of Giulio Cesare (Iestyn Davies, Kristina Mkhitaryan), Lulu (Brenda Rae), Rusalka (Sonya Yoncheva, Piotr Beczala), and Nabucco (George Gagnidze, Anna Netrebko). We have chosen to highlight Nabucco, not heard at the Met since 2017.
Verdi himself dated his extraordinary trajectory as a composer not from his first opera but from his third, Nabucco, premiered in 1842 at La Scala. The title entered the Met repertoire relatively late, opening night 1960. General Manager Rudolf Bing’s predilection for Verdi had already accounted for the important revivals of the long-neglected Don Carlo in 1950 and Ernani in 1956, and the company premiere of Macbeth in 1959. This string of successes was interrupted by the tepid reception that befell Nabucco. The work failed to survive its first season. Four decades later, in 2001, with a spectacular scenic investiture and a competent array of principal singers, reviewers and public finally embraced Verdi’s early work; the projected 2021 revival would have been its sixth.
Under the stewardship of James Levine, whose Met career began towards the end of the Bing era, the company remained strongly committed to Verdi. Levine was on the podium for seventeen of the composer’s operas including the house premieres of three rarities, I Lombardi, Stiffelio, and I Vespri Siciliani. And it was Levine who led Nabucco’s popular new production in 2001. Here he conducts the orchestra and chorus in the beloved anthem “Va', pensiero, sull'ali dorate (Go, thoughts, on golden wings).” The Israelites, slaves in Babylon, mourn their lost homeland.
On learning that she was born a slave and not, as she had thought, the daughter of Nabucco, the king of Babylon, Abigaille vents her rage in the recitative of her Act II extended aria. In the lyrical section, “Anch'io dischiuso un giorno (I too once opened my heart),” she confesses her love for Ismaele, a Jewish nobleman enamored of Nabucco’s true daughter, Fenena. Finally, in the vehement cabaletta, "Salgo già del trono aurato (I already ascend the golden throne)," Abigaille’s anger once again erupts as she claims the crown of Babylon. In this concert performance, Julia Varady fearlessly navigates the extreme upper and lower ends of the soprano range and spins out the intervening legato phrases.
The ensemble that closes Act II of Nabucco, “S'appressan gl'istanti d’un ira fatale (The moment of direst wrath is fast approaching),” is among the most thrilling of the opera’s many concerted pieces. Presumed dead, Nabucco returns to reclaim his crown from Abigaille and to order the death of the Israelites. In this clip, drawn from a 1981 Verona performance, the principals are headed by Renato Bruson and Ghena Dimitrova. The Roman Arena is a fitting frame for this Biblical spectacle.