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Should Fabio Luisi become music director of the Met Opera?

October 12, 2011 |  8:50 am

Fabio Luisi

The Metropolitan Opera, with a budget of $325 million, is the world’s most massive opera company and, by a significant degree, America’s largest performing arts institution. Its next music director evidently will be its principal conductor, Fabio Luisi. New York Times chief music critic Anthony Tommasini already has described Luisi as the Met’s music director in all but name.

That’s a very big deal for a relatively unknown conductor. But Peter Gelb is in a pickle. What else could the Met’s feisty general manager do? The company’s longtime and lionized music director, James Levine, has injured a vertebra and withdrawn from his Met conducting duties for the rest of the year. His condition isn't publicly known, but Levine's frailty, the result of cascading health problems, worries the music world.

In Luisi, Gelb has a backup upon whom he can rely. The 52-year-old Italian conductor’s record as music director elsewhere has been spotty, but Luisi is appreciated for his painstaking preparation, efficient conducting style and hands-on competence in all aspects of opera. He presumably finds favor with the demanding Met orchestra, pleases hard-to-please New York critics and is well enough liked by opera audiences. But dependable as he is, Luisi, who is not particularly imaginative nor a big podium personality, is no Levine.

Luisi has been behind the scenes so far this season, but this week he begins filling in for Levine. Thursday night he will conduct a new production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” directed by Michael Grandage. On Sunday, Luisi leads the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in the world premiere of a new work by John Harbison. On Oct. 27 he takes on Wagner’s “Siegfried,” the third opera in the Met’s new Robert Lepage-directed “Ring” cycle.

With the Met prize within reach, Luisi is banking, big time, on these assignments. He has made the Met his clear priority and canceled engagements at the Rome Opera, with the San Francisco Symphony and even with the Vienna Symphony, of which he is music director. Last spring, Luisi let down the Royal Opera in London when he also was needed to substitute at the Met for Levine.

Second-guessing Gelb is dangerous given some of his impressive calls. Those of us who scoffed at the Met's HD broadcasts to movie theaters are eating crow, at least over their success if not consistent quality. Gelb has been accused of overspending, but he just concluded a record-setting fundraising spree of $182 million for the past fiscal year.

Still, the selection of a music director is the single most important decision a general director can make, and in this case it is especially critical, considering Levine’s 40-year history with the Met.

In 2007, Luisi became music director of Dresden’s fabled opera company and orchestra, the Semperoper and Staatskapelle. There were complaints in the press of a lack of vision and lackluster performances from those venerable institutions, where the likes of Richard Wagner and Karl Bohm had once held sway.

An old-school charismatic star and one of the conductors most in demand at the Salzburg and Bayreuth festivals, Christian Thielemann, was hired to succeed Luisi when his contract expired in 2012.

Without informing Luisi and possibly overeager to capitalize on Thielemann’s commercial potential, the Staatskapelle engaged him to conduct a 2010 New Year’s Eve gala in the opera house of highlights from “The Merry Widow,” starring Renée Fleming. Luisi’s Strauss CDs from Dresden were so hard to sell that Sony didn’t even bother to release them in the U.S. But this sparkling and captivating cream-filled gala garnered a television contract as well as release on a Deutsche Grammophon DVD and CD -– along with a sticker proclaiming “A NEW TRADITION!”

An angry Luisi walked out on the company, not that he was the first conductor so spurned. In 1989, the Los Angeles Philharmonic invited Esa-Pekka Salonen to be principal guest conductor and lead a tour without telling music director André Previn, and that was the beginning of the end for Previn. Thielemann, himself, resigned as music director of the Munich Philharmonic after butting heads with management. But however miffed, Previn put musicians and the public and first fulfilled engagements; Thielemann, meanwhile, has rejected the offer to come to Dresden early because of his Munich commitments. Luisi, however,  left Dresden in the lurch.

When Gelb took over in 2006, the Met was often criticized for relying too heavily on Levine and not attracting enough other major conductors in the pit. To his credit, Gelb has been trying to rectify that with recent engagements by the likes of Salonen, Daniel Barenboim, Riccardo Muti and Simon Rattle. None, perhaps, outshines Levine. But all do Luisi. Could that matter? What would be the chance of getting Thielemann, who last conducted at the Met a decade ago?

Luisi’s cancellations are beginning to lead to bad blood. Rome Opera has threatened to sue. Even students at UCLA are being denied a special opportunity thanks to Luisi. James Conlon has taken Luisi’s dates at the San Francisco Symphony this month, which conflicts with a concert the Los Angeles Opera music director was to have conducted with the UCLA Philharmonia. That concert has been canceled.

Zurich Opera also has to be wondering where it stands. Luisi is to become its music director in 2012.

While Luisi has canceled dates in the Austrian capital with his Vienna Symphony, he will conduct the orchestra’s short East Coast tour next month, including two dates in Lincoln Center. Logistically this makes sense, given that Luisi has already moved his family from Vienna to New York. It does, however, add to the appearance that for Luisi Lincoln Center is the center of  his universe, everyone else be damned.

Perhaps the most pressing question of all is what kind of artistic vision Luisi might bring to the Met? I hope the programming he has overseen at the Vienna Symphony is not anything to go by. The orchestra's season is so conventional that even the more celebrated and famously conservative Vienna Philharmonic looks imaginative in comparison. The Vienna Symphony has just hired the lively 36-year-old Philippe Jordan as Luisi’s successor in 2014, which implies that the orchestra might also want "a new tradition."

So would Luisi be the best choice for the Met or merely the best choice for Gelb, a pliant conductor who will serve a general manager’s agenda rather than set his own? Are Rattle, Barenboim or Muti out of the question?

There are two Americans who might be the most preferable of all. It would be hard to beat Conlon’s qualifications. He began conducting at the Met in his 20s, more than 30 years ago, and although he hasn’t been back recently he was once rumored to be Levine’s natural successor. His contract with L.A. Opera is through next season.

David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony, is the dark horse, but a very versatile one. He is equally at home with Italian bel canto, John Adams and the European avant-garde, and he boasts a huge repertory of operas.

Luisi did a very good job filling in for Levine at the Met in Berg’s “Lulu” last spring. Robertson did an altogether brilliant job conducting Berg’s “Wozzeck” at Santa Fe last summer. He hasn’t been at the Met for a while, either, but Robertson will conduct Britten’s “Billy Budd” this season. Attention should be paid.


Culture Watch: James Levine, America's Maestro

Opera review: New 'Tosca' opens Metropolitan Opera season

Opera review: David Robertson conducts 'Wozzeck' in Santa Fe

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Fabio Luisi. Credit: Koichi Miura / Metropolitan Opera