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Met Celebrates 25 Years of James Levine With All-Star Gala

April 28, 1996

NEW YORK (AP) - It was long past 1 a.m. when Birgit Nilsson broke into a few bars of ``Ho-jo-to-ho,″ the Valkyrie war whoop that was one of her trademarks during the years she reigned supreme as Wagner’s Bruennhilde.

Nilsson, who retired from opera more than a decade ago, was paying tribute in her inimitable way to James Levine, the artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera who is celebrating his 25th anniversary with the company.

Before Saturday night’s gala was finished, more than 40 stars of the opera world _ from the up-and-coming tenor Roberto Alagna (32), to the all-but-retired tenor Carlo Begonzi (71) _ had taken their turn on stage in an eight-hour marathon that was televised by the Public Broadcasting Service.

Even with some notable absences because of illness (Cecilia Bartoli and Luciano Pavarotti in particular) or schedule conflicts (tenor Ben Heppner was singing at the Seattle Opera), the array of talent made for a thrilling, if exhausting, spectacle.

It also provided an opportunity for some reflection on the state of opera singing today, and tomorrow. In particular:

_Alagna did much to overcome the lukewarm impression he had made earlier this month in his debut in Puccini’s ``La Boheme.″ He sang beautifully in two numbers, the delicate Cherry Duet from Mascagni’s ``L’Amico Fritz″ with his fiancee, soprano Angela Gheorghiu, and ``Au fond du temple saint,″ from Bizet’s ``The Pearlfishers,″ with Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel.

But aside from Alagna, where are the young tenors? Richard Leech and Jerry Hadley, Americans in their prime, both sang well, but otherwise the tenor ranks were represented by the elderly Bergonzi, Alfredo Kraus, who is slightly younger at 68, and, of course, Placido Domingo, who is ``only″ 55. Domingo maintained his high standard of vocal elegance in two numbers _ a trio from Verdi’s ``Ernani″ with soprano Deborah Voigt and bass Robert Scandiuzzi, and the Act I duet from Gounod’s ``Faust″ with bass Samuel Ramey.

_Terfel reconfirmed the impression he has made in earlier appearances that he is sure to be one of the superstars of the next generation. His booming, mellifluous baritone and utter ease and gracefulness as a performer mark him as one in a million. Besides joining with Alagna, he showed off his ebullient Leporello in the Act II sextet from Mozart’s ``Don Giovanni.″

_In the long parade of prima donnas, the revelation was Renee Fleming, whose soprano voice is as beautiful as any in memory. Her account of ``Depuis le jour″ from Charpentier’s ``Louise″ was radiant, as was her part in the trio from Strauss’ ``Der Rosenkavalier″ (gorgeously sung also by Anne Sofie von Otter and Heidi Grant Murphy). Fleming was the only performer to appear in three numbers, joining in the ``Don Giovanni″ sextet.

_Wagnerians had to be heartened by English soprano Jane Eaglen’s account of Bruennhilde’s Immolation Scene from ``Die Gotterdaemmerung.″ Fresh from her triumph in the role at Chicago’s Lyric Opera, Eaglen convinces more and more that she is the genuine article, a dramatic soprano who, fittingly, takes her place on the same stage with Nilsson.

When Nilsson last had sung on the Met stage, during a 1983 gala celebrating the Met’s centennial, she performed Isolde’s Narrative and Curse from Act I of Wagner’s ``Tristan and Isolde.″ On Saturday night, the piece was sung by Waltraud Meier, a German mezzo who has been extending her voice into soprano territory. It was a thrilling performance by a fine dramatic artist, but the pressurized high notes raise fears for the future of a voice that may be venturing too far out of its natural range.

_Dawn Upshaw gave a typically simple, silvery and winning performance of Susanna’s Act IV aria from Mozart’s ``Marriage of Figaro.″ The contrast could not have been more striking with the number that preceded it _ a mannered, diva-ish rendition by Jessye Norman, with high notes that consistently went flat, of an aria from Berlioz’ ``Damnation of Faust.″

Throughout the long evening, Levine conducted the Met’s wonderful orchestra with love and enthusiasm. He took a long series of solo bows at the end, but made no speeches. It was his party, after all, and he seemed chose to celebrate it where he is most at home, on the podium.

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