I saw James Levine on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, in the spring of 2004, walking outside the MET. He was walking very gingerly, lagging behind a female companion, and carrying in his hands a folded Playbill to the Christopher Plummer production of King Lear that played at the Vivian Beaumont from February to April of that year. Looking at him, walking like a tired old man, his gaze lowered to the ground, almost afraid of taking the next step, I assumed that he had been overcome by Christopher Plummer's stellar performance. But when he walked passed me, I could see in his face the unmistakable pain of someone deeply suffering from his sciatica. James Levine's journey from young energetic prodigy to infirm middle age came too fast.
This weekend the news broke that he had fallen onstage at Boston's Symphony Hall after a rapturous performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The preliminary reports are that he fell right on his shoulder and injured his rotator cuff. The fall has now forced Maestro Levine to cancel his participation in the Boston Symphony's upcoming tour and, depending on the extent of his injury, possibly the rest of the performances at the Metropolitan Opera. He was scheduled to undergo an MRI today, and the best that he can hope for is that the rotator cuff is only bruised. Anything more damaging, such as a tear, would require surgery and put him out of commission for many months. His schedule at the MET for the remainder of the season, is quite hectic, with upcoming performances of Fidelio, the return of Robert Wilson's production of Lohengrin and three performances of Parsifal. Also, he is scheduled to conduct the upcoming new production of Donizetti's Don Pasquale.
If James Levine is forced to cancel his Wagner performances during April and May, it will be interesting to see who the MET gets to replace him. Will these performances be led, by default, by Maestro Valery Gergiev (who in April of 2003 conducted a number of memorable performances of Parsifal with Domingo, Pape and Struckmann)? Or will David Robertson or Marek Janowski (both of whom are taking over the Boston Symphony's tour) be hired to fill in for the ailing maestro in New York.
Listen up, Mr, Volpe: desperate times require desperate measures. If Maestro Levine is unable to fulfill his duties for the rest of the season, I recommend Christian Thielemann (an amazing Tannhäuser at Bayreuth this summer), Kent Nagano (his vivid reading of Parsifal from Baden-Baden is now available on DVD) or Esa-Pekka Salonen, whose Tristan Project and Tristan und Isolde last year in Los Angeles and Paris respectively electrified the musical and artistic world.
But make no mistake, what we all really want is for James Levine to get healthy and to conduct the rest of the operas he is scheduled to lead. The A-list of star conductors that I recommended above would be great ringers, but I think it would be better if they just became part of the MET's regular roster of house conductors under the upcoming Peter Gelb tenure.