Met Opera orchestra conductor James Levine has bailed on new opera ‘Figaro’

In 2015, Lincoln Center Opera added four new productions a year to its schedule. Its biggest hit was a period drama, “Coriolanus,” that so impressed critics the company gave it the house. But critics…

Met Opera orchestra conductor James Levine has bailed on new opera ‘Figaro’

In 2015, Lincoln Center Opera added four new productions a year to its schedule. Its biggest hit was a period drama, “Coriolanus,” that so impressed critics the company gave it the house.

But critics were not so taken with a new work, “Figaro,” which opened to mixed reviews and has drawn average audiences of around 800 — way below the company’s target of 1,500.

And now the only functioning string section in the company has bailed. The Washington Post reported that Met Opera Orchestra Conductor James Levine has pulled out of “Figaro” and four other newly commissioned works.

It’s hard to imagine a more entertaining (and now inexplicable) departure than this:

“He withdrew from the work on doctors’ orders after a fall that delayed the start of rehearsals for the new opera, which Levine had personally composed,” the Post reported. “A spokeswoman for the Met confirmed that he was resting a shoulder injury, but would not give further details.”

“A fall” is the least likely thing to derail “Figaro,” because the opera itself has very little to do with falling. As Washington Post critic Chris Jones noted, while most people think of the opera as a nutty fart-fest, it really is a moving tragedy about a man whose heart refuses to listen to his fellow humans:

In its libretto, writer Christopher Hampton finally gives Figaro the full-on rousing orgy of triumphal love that Pergolesi wrote and Frederick Burtley drew and which (except in the French lyric repertoire) has rarely been heard — so wondrous that it must be experienced to believe.

Levine’s departure is the news at the moment because the production is being hailed for its purity and good will. That’s not so much surprising as it is sad. Only great opera can be made by artists who sit through out-and-out bad performances, and they probably hate being asked to do so.

In an ideal world, the Met would listen and respect those artists, leaving the ship intact for further experimentation. But in today’s Met Opera, artists in any proportion will surely feel bruised by the lack of sympathy and attention. That this outage happens on the eve of its 100th anniversary is, I imagine, an afterthought.

Fortunately, a new conductor is coming in to take over “Figaro.” For anyone else a bit more familiar with the territory: “Opera is the theater of musicians and singers who create an emotional, kinetic sound that enlivens the whole room.”

It is not enough for musicians to take a hatchet to the machinery. We’re expecting the work to be good. That is why the Met repeatedly recruits fresh-faced young blood to take over what have proven to be dead-end assignments like “Sweeney Todd.”

When “Figaro” goes to the LCT this season, Victor Chilton will take over. He is the main conductor of the Santa Fe Opera; he has worked in the Royal Opera House, Glasgow (Scotland) and Hamburg (Germany), and in a variety of roles, from harpsichordist to tenor.

As the Washington Post points out, his principal theater credit is a television production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” Chilton has big shoes to fill.

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