The wait was long between James Levine’s 2,442nd and 2,443rd performances at the Metropolitan Opera, but it was worth it. 864 days after his last appearance, in a Die Walküre that teetered on the edge of falling apart, Levine finally returned to the pit for a Così fan tutte that stunned with its security. A mere 134 days before this return, he had stoically, impressively negotiated a programme of Wagner, Beethoven, and Schubert at Carnegie Hall. But that was a stage, and this was a pit, and while Levine has usually been reliable on the former, the latter is home.

Four hours after the first of many standing ovations for the music director, it was clear that Levine’s powers have not dimmed while he has been away. The indications were there immediately, with an overture that showed exactly what was in store. Languid tempi relied on faultless appreciation of harmonic rhythm and an ability to shape lines. A spiky underlining of detail enhanced a commitment to structural concerns. Strings sang with a purity but also a warmth, and not as heavily as one might imagine. Those crucial woodwinds seemed constantly to remember that however ludicrous or poignant Così’s stage action might be, there is always a gentle smile to be found in Mozart’s music. It was the trajectory of this performance that impressed most, though. Così requires an almost symphonic sense of vision to come off as it must, more perhaps than any of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas. Levine charted one so confident that he could give his singers scarcely believable freedom and not have it detract from the whole.

Moreover, Levine has always been an admired trainer of vocalists. So it proved here, with the young cast assembled for Levine’s return. They were at their best in ensemble, and the attention to detail in rehearsal was obvious, whether it was in the way vocal lines intertwined in the lamenting trio that follows the fake departure of Guglielmo and Ferrando, in a seamless web of sound, or even at the level of coordinating breaths and entries to maximum effect. From there, Susanna Phillips and Isabel Leonard in particular reveled in the flexibility of tempo that Levine offered them. Leonard, as Dorabella, sang with a magnetic charisma and a remarkable depth of tone, possessing springy agility in “Smanie implacabili” and a convincing sincerity in “Il core vi dono”, her duet with Rodion Pogossov’s Guglielmo. This was yet further confirmation, as if a winner of the Beverly Sills and Richard Tucker Awards needed it, of potential already being realized. Susanna Phillips also impressed as Fiordiligi, overcoming a slight shakiness low in her register in “Come scoglio” to deliver a “Per pietà” so soaring that for once it emerged as both Fiordiligi’s conversation with herself and the moral heart of the entire work. Most impressive from both these young artists was a depth of character growth during the opera to match the arc of Levine’s work in the pit.

With our four other characters, things were slightly more mixed. Matthew Polenzani, the Met’s lyric tenor of choice, had a cold to go with a generally rather unsubtle acting style. Congested or not, Polenzani displayed admirable courage, daring to attempt “Un’aura amorosa” with whispered half-tones. Pogossov’s Guglielmo grew in confidence, starting out too quiet but filling out in time for a vicious “Donne mie”. In their conniving roles, Maurizio Muraro and Danielle de Niese were less convincing. Muraro took the rhetorical style of Don Alfonso perhaps a step too far, and played the character more as a trickster than as a symbol of the reason hailed in Mozart’s coda. De Niese’s Despina was better in the second half than the first, though one wonders whether her voice – thrilling in the Baroque repertoire – is really precise enough for Mozart.

Lesley Koenig’s 1996 production wears its age well, and although its traditionalism doesn’t really add a great deal, it doesn’t detract either. In this revival under Robin Guarino, there are numerous comedic touches, but one often wishes more were going on at a deeper level, even if that just meant the addition of small details. As the men depart, for instance, Dorabella clutches a model ship, which could make an interesting motif later on, but it doesn’t reappear. Generally, our sextet’s acting tended more towards the buffoonery of the Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro recently seen on this stage than anything especially profound, but it at least stayed the right side of farce. And when such modest dignity comes from the pit, we can at least be thankful for that.