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Ailing bodily, not musically

TV and a book salute the suffering maestro. A simulcast shows him in good form.

Although James Levine barely made it through his 40th anniversary season at the Metropolitan Opera, he did so with his stature undiminished.

What a relief. Think of the embarrassment factor had his chronic health problems taken him out completely, at a time when this critical mass of Leviniana is arriving from all sides. On Wednesday, the American Masters profile, "James Levine: America's Maestro," airs on PBS (WHYY TV12, 8 p.m.), while six area movie theaters host the Met's encore simulcast of the Levine-conducted Die Walküre. Meanwhile, a coffee-table book, James Levine: 40 Years at the Metropolitan Opera (Amadeus Press, $32), draws on much of the interview material in the American Masters show, along with testimonials written by most of the greatest singers in the business.

None of it goes much beyond the surface. But we have to take what we're given. Although the conductor is a ubiquitous presence on screen and disc, the backstage Levine is perhaps the most underdocumented musical artist of his stature. The Met hasn't been in the habit of cultivating press coverage, and Levine has tended to be media-shy. And who knows when we'll see Levine again?

The back problems that have prompted numerous surgeries and left him not entirely in control of his limbs forced him to cancel his participation in the Met's Japan tour and the Tanglewood season with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which asked him to resign earlier this year due to his chronic absences. Levine seems optimistic about his forthcoming round of treatment, but the rest of the world is losing hope. So it's a relief to report that the Die Walküre simulcast shows him in sure possession of himself, with his mostly splendid cast singing with blazing energy (though the Robert Lepage production isn't nearly as effective in the simulcast as it is live). Deborah Voigt has considerably more authority in the role of Brünnhilde than earlier in the opera's run. The two Wagnerian couples - with Jonas Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Bryn Terfel, and Stephanie Blythe in the roles - are as convincingly sung and acted as any seasoned Wagnerite could hope for.

What a change that is from 40 years ago, when the Met was artistically depressed in ways so glaring to anyone who caught the Saturday radio broadcasts that even the young Levine hesitated to take his first engagement offer there. But he took the gig, partly because he feared the operatic medium would die out in his own lifetime.

The Met indeed had near-death experiences, with labor disputes and a deficit equal to $25 million in 21st-century dollars. What lesson is there for cultural institutions, from the Philadelphia Orchestra to the New York City Opera, that are veering toward the brink? Smart, hard work and miracles born out of artistic synergy.

The American Masters profile shows that Levine doesn't get there by being the genial teddy bear that's his public persona. In much rehearsal footage, Levine is emphatic, forceful, and stubborn, admittedly (but unapologetically) explaining too much to the musicians. - "I'm a teacher-conductor," he says - but not letting up on Placido Domingo until he incorporates a tiny vocal articulation Levine is convinced will make the tenor's performance easier. His upbeat nature is manifested in a refusal to accept bad news; at one point, he refers to his latest back surgery as "simple" and "fun."

Unlike high-concept conductors such as Leonard Bernstein, the interpretively less obtrusive Levine emerges as someone who doesn't conjure music, as many conductors would like us to believe, but releases it by allowing everyone around him to operate with an ease and comfort. Over and over in the Levine: 40 Years book, singers talk about the safety of working with him. In the book, soprano Aprile Millio writes: "His beautiful sky-blue eyes have such life and carry enormous power. The world is awash in love and unlimited possibility. He creates an environment that begs the curious, invites the creative and inspires the free."

Her observation can be tangibly supported. Not only does Levine sense when a singer is running low on breath, but he speeds up the music so the phrase being sung isn't quite as long. Also comforting, he can talk about music with concrete clarity: At one point, he tells a soprano, "You lost 30 percent of the tempo." Sometimes wearing a neck brace, Levine often does his work looking like a portrait of physical ruin. And if any part of the music profession requires the uncompromised physical engagement of a musician, it's coordinating all of the elements of an opera performance.

How, then, was his Die Walküre performance possible? As strong-minded as he is about what needs to happen in a performance, Levine has long shared artistic responsibility. His goal, at least according to some of his interviews, is to disappear into the performance, to simply be the frame of an interpretation and let all the other musicians fill in the details. At least in theory, giving personal musical responsibility to the musicians is going to prompt greater involvement - never a bad thing.

Also, if the artistic health of a musical institution depends on the indispensable presence of the conductor, any performance is likely to depend on the conductor's human frailties. And goodness knows Levine has had a lot of those lately.

When Levine appeared to be going through an artistic slump a few years back, a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 at Carnegie Hall reminded audiences how great he can be, commencing the latest round of infatuation Levine has enjoyed over the years with his audience. And in rehearsal footage seen in the American Masters profile, Levine cautions his musicians not to treat the world's single most famous symphony as some distant cultural artifact. "The minute we stand back from it in any way," he says, "it's gone." He is asking the players to somehow unlearn a significant part of their musical history.

Having been at that performance, I can say he got what he wanted. But without a sense of individual responsibility in the orchestra, could he have come close to achieving that?