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TERRY GROSS, host:

In honor of James Levine's 40th anniversary conducting the Metropolitan Opera, the Met has released two box sets of his live performances on CD and DVD. At 67, he's had some serious health problems, and there have been calls by some for him to step down from conducting.

Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says that these new releases prove what a vital figure Levine has been.

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LLOYD SCHWARTZ: James Levine has had a rough couple of years, including several surgeries that have forced him to cancel months of performances, both with the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the two major organizations he directs. But instead of eliciting sympathy, his disabilities seem to have angered the press. He returned from his latest surgery, though, apparently pain-free for the first time in years, and he is now conducting again on the highest level.

On one Saturday last fall, shortly after his return, he conducted the live telecast of a Wagner matinee at the Met and flew to Boston to lead the BSO in a Mahler symphony that night. Both were thrilling. He told opening night BSO patrons that if he felt he couldn't do his job, he'd be happy to assist in the search for a replacement. I hope that's many years away.

In the meantime, to honor the 40th anniversary of his Met debut, the Met has released two box sets of DVDs and CDs of 22 of his nearly 2,500 live opera performances - all but two of them available for the first time - and three spectacular concerts. They all vividly demonstrate what a powerful presence he's been since his debut and how irreplaceable.

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SCHWARTZ: Even before you open the packages, you can't help notice the staggering range of Levine's versatility, including many operas he introduced to the Met. Besides the expected Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Strauss, there are fascinating less-familiar works: Smetana's Czech folk opera, "The Bartered Bride," Puccini's satirical one-act comedy, "Gianni Schicchi" - maybe his best opera - and Berlioz's epic masterpiece, "The Trojans," with the towering Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as the doomed Queen Dido in the single greatest tragic performance I ever saw at the Met.

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Ms. LORRAINE HUNT LIEBERSON (Mezzo-soprano): (as Queen Dido)(Singing in foreign language)

SCHWARTZ: These two sets highlight one of Levine's most significant contributions: his commitment to 20th century music. Both of Berg's operas, "Wozzeck" and "Lulu," for example, turn up in two different productions 20 years apart, as well as two operas Levine commissioned: John Corigliano's "The Ghosts of Versailles" and John Harbison's "The Great Gatsby," with another stellar performance by Lieberson as Fitzgerald's blowsy Myrtle Wilson.

And what a cornucopia of the great opera stars of the past 40 years: Leontyne Price and Marilyn Horne, Anja Silja and Jon Vickers, Placido Domingo and Renee Fleming.

Levine obviously had a special place in his heart for the mercurial and infinitely touching soprano Teresa Stratas, one of opera's best actresses, and with a ravishing voice to boot. She appears here in four different roles, ranging from Corigliano's elegant Marie Antoinette to a Kurt Weill floozy in "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny," the Met's first and only production of any of Weill's operas.

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Ms. TERESA STRATAS (Soprano): (Singing) Oh moon of Alabama we now must say good bye. We lost our good old mama, and must have whiskey, oh you know why. Oh moon of Alabama we now must say good bye. We lost our good old mama, and must whiskey, oh you know why.

SCHWARTZ: Another singer Levine cherished was the rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos, who appears in two full productions, as well as in a 1982 concert Levine conducted on the Met stage, leading the orchestra he turned into one of the world's great ensembles. It's delicious to watch the young, curly-haired maestro mouthing the words expressively along with his stars.

His conducting has always combined animation and vigor with a secure sense of style and taste, from Verdi's slashing excitement to Berlioz's statuesque grandeur to Puccini's sly innuendos. And he gives the musical complexity of the modern operas a rare lucidity. I wish every aspiring opera conductor would study these discs. Meanwhile, the rest of us can just sit back and enjoy opera at its very best.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical musical editor of the Boston Phoenix and teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed "James Levine: Celebrating 40 Years at the Met."

You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

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