Maury D's take on Renaay's outing yesterday seems pretty spot on to me--there simply wasn't much going on outside the expected schedule of nifty vocal fx. It's singing that just isn't very captivating--plenty of "Huh, well that is a nice sound" moments, but little real satisfaction. IMO, mind you, that's a big contrast from her thoroughly enjoyable Manon in the fall.
Maybe she's just not that good putting across isolated numbers. Or perhaps it was the different configuration with the orchestra, which nearly swallowed her whole every time she dipped below the stratosphere in the Tchaikovsky. The Berg lieder were easily the most interesting, but that, after all, is probably due more to Berg and the orchestra than her. The Capriccio sequence, in addition to the weirdness with the MIA major domo at the outset just failed to register. Also, and I didn't notice this in Manon, but her sound here was inconsistent to the point of distraction. She is capable of very different sonic qualities, especially in the top, and while all are fairly beautiful in their own right, she seemed to deploy them arbitrarily. You never know quite what you're going to get when she heads up north, and it screws up the dramatic unity of the piece in question.
But thankfully that somewhat disappointing showing wasn't the whole show (for the record, its not like she sounds bad, of course). Time alone with the Met Orchestra in broad daylight was an exceptionally worthy way to spend a Sunday afternoon. The orchestra's two pieces sans Flem, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy and the Tannhauser Prelude and Bacchanale, plus the Berg, were all tremendously exciting. Levine was in his customary form as master surgeon, wielding the breathless precision and authority of his band to methodically peel away all inessential tissue and isolate musical ideas of the utmost purity. His touch is utterly transparent, and yet capable of producing such unexpected revelations in the most familiar scores.
On fine display in the R&J Fantasy, Levine has a very special understanding of how, more than conveying a mood, music tied to specific dramatic content needs to be played differently than abstract material. Each element in the the musical narrative is cleanly and distinctively portrayed in such a way that when the main theme finally cuts through it all, it is as if the thrust of the drama itself becomes clear.
Likewise, in his Tannhauser, the fevered climax of the Bacchanale doesn't so much give way to peacefulness--rather, it heaves and disintegrates under its own weight, the product of imperceptible shifts in tempo and tone. The effect cuts to the heart of the opera: we see how Tannhauser hasn't truly understood that his life with Venus is false yet. He simply finds his soul exasperated by earthly pleasure and pines for calm. Thus his subsequent rejection of Venus isn't true repentance, but a vain attempt at relief from the burden of earthly experience. Levine's reading brings all these shadings to life in wonderful detail.