It’s time to stop talking about James Levine’s comeback. After a scintillating return to Carnegie Hall in May and a fleet, immaculate Così fan tutte at the Metropolitan Opera in September, Levine has proven what he never really had to: his powers have not waned in his absence from the podium. Given sensible scheduling and interesting repertoire, we can focus once again on his music-making.

James Levine on his return to Carnegie Hall in May 2013 © Steve J. Sherman, May 2013
James Levine on his return to Carnegie Hall in May 2013
© Steve J. Sherman, May 2013

As I wrote, that first, feted Carnegie concert began with “a shining evocation of the sacred land of the Holy Grail”. With Wagner dealt with, only Verdi remained of this year’s major bicentennials. Although the rest of the programme here was unconventional, the traditional overture still came first, this time with I vespri siciliani, a work that premièred five years later than the first concert’s Lohengrin. Strong and indomitable, this was controlled Verdi. With sighing winds and fiery strings, though, it was none the cooler for that restraint.

Moving from Verdi to Elliott Carter’s formidably brilliant Variations for Orchestra proved a gutsy move from Levine, to put it mildly. The comparison certainly underlined Carter’s achievements in a piece that Levine conducts frequently and with surpassing understanding. (This was the third time he had performed this work on this stage with this orchestra since 2005.) Carter’s Variations come with innovations beyond a classic attempt to conjure unity from diversity and diversity from unity. Two ritornelli vie with the principal theme, shifting across the orchestra at different speeds and with changing instrumentations to provide a further layer of complexity and more threads of development. Although the variations compress towards the fifth of their number before relaxing out again, the whole piece gives the impression of careening towards something left unsaid, with trumpets ticking as the end approaches. Sturdy high modernism this may be, but Carter’s distinctively witty, nimble, and generous nature go with it. One could not imagine a more committed nor a more secure performance than this.

To end the first half, Levine went back from Carter beyond Verdi to Rossini, and his solo cantata from 1832, Giovanna d’Arco. Orchestrated rather unimaginatively for chamber forces by Salvatore Sciarrino, the cantata is the narrative of Joan of Arc’s mental preparations as she prepares to head off for war and death. In Joyce DiDonato, it found an interpreter more than able to balance its emotional and storytelling demands with the bel canto line and coloratura dazzle it requires. She marries nuanced acting technique to an innate understanding of and conviction with the Italian language, and possess a voice full of power but so flexible that it swoons and sparks almost in the same breath. For all the fireworks – not least, nattily, at “la flamma” – it was DiDonato’s ability to expose the nuances of text that was most impressive. Take an “addio” that moved from desolation to joy, or the myriad inflections of “la vittoria” repeated to the heavens.

Two arias from Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito were scarcely less accomplished. Levine captured some of the humane majesty he found in his recent Così for the introduction to Sesto’s great aria, “Deh, per questo istante solo”. Deliciously floating the opening stanzas with extraordinary length of line, DiDonato perfectly charted the progression of Sesto’s worries as he moves towards death at the expense of betrayal. Vitellia’s “Non più di fiori” raised more questions, although not in an extraordinary recitative. (Another number, another exquisitely fragile “addio.”) The aria proper exposed some trouble with the lower reaches of the demanding range required, something not aided by the volume of sound Levine extracted from his orchestra. Even so, this was compelling singing.

Not so much in Beethoven’s Seventh. The May concert’s Beethoven with Evgeny Kissin suggested that Levine favours a steadfast style in this composer’s music, tending towards a vastness that seems overly massive even for those of us who prefer our Beethoven to be of the Barenboim vintage. So it proved here, although with a surprising bluntness. Heavy Beethoven has its place, of course (think late Klemperer), but a lack of surprise, indeed of unpredictability in development, left me wanting more from this Seventh. Even the peek-a-boo dismissal of the scherzo’s third trio was deadpan, and the finale steadfastly refused to take off at all. Moreover, the only unifying feature seemed to be slamming accents from the timpani and low strings, which became particularly tedious late on. The MET Orchestra, however, sounded peerless.