CHICAGO – In the twilight of his music directorship of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti candidly outlined his legacy and implored musicians to remember his instruction on Giuseppe Verdi’s operas: use the 19th century scores without altered notes.
He urged them to reject modern directorial concepts seeking relevance.
“In 20 to 30 years, when everything will collapse, you will say maybe Muti was right,” the 80-year-old Italian conductor told the orchestra before Wednesday's rehearsal.
Muti is leading three concert performances of “Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball)” at Orchestra Hall through Tuesday, the culmination of a Verdi project that included the Requiem, “Otello,” “Macbeth,” “Falstaff” and “Aida.”
“The problem today is that these operas are in the hands many times of stage directors who with some exceptions are destroying the opera,” he said during an interview with The Associated Press after Wednesday’s rehearsal, going on to fault the podium work of those who don’t study Verdi’s details.
“From the first opera going to `Falstaff’ and the Four Sacred Pieces is an entire arc without interruption,” Muti said. “In every opera, you find all the elements that will become important for the next opera. And the early Verdi, the famous Verdi of um-pa-pa, um-pa-pa, um-pa-pa, he didn’t mean to write um-pa-pa. It’s been always played in this way by dilettantes or conductors that don’t know.”
Muti, whose Chicago contract runs through the 2022-23 season, considers himself the descendant of strong Italian conductors reaching back to Arturo Toscanini and Tulio Serafin. He’s not a fan of most contemporary directors.
“Many of them — most of them don’t read music. Some are absolutely deaf,” he said. “I’m sure that after a long experiment in this direction, that now has become old, too. There’s nothing new to have the opera transposed to today. At the end, when everybody will be tired, people will start to think — maybe two generations from now — why don’t we try to see and to experiment again what was that world?”
He used the unpublished critical edition from the complete works of Verdi, a joint project of the University of Chicago Press and Casa Ricordi started in the 1970s and still decades from completion. General editor Francesco Izzo traveled from Britain to be in the audience,
Muti insists reading the score is not enough. One must understand the motivation and purpose of each note and jettison additions to scores resulting from traditional habits. Jay Friedman, the 83-year-old principal trombone, credits Muti’s attention to dynamics.
“Muti is probably the most consistent music director, interpreter, that we’ve had,” said Friedman, who joined the orchestra in 1962 and has played under Fritz Reiner, Jean Martinon, Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim and Bernard Haitink. “Let’s be honest, great orchestras can many times be on what I call autopilot, which is all the notes are there, very virtuosic. But it takes a conductor with a real imagination and a real sense of what is possible from a great orchestra to turn that autopilot into something really special.”
A standout cast Thursday included Lebanese soprano Joyce El-Khoury who gave a shimmering performance in her role debut as Amelia. Russian Yulia Matochkina displayed a portentous mezzo-soprano as the sorceress Ulrica, Italian soprano Damiana Mizzi had ebullient coloratura as the page Oscar and tenor Francesco Meli was a dashing if somewhat flagging Riccardo. Muti drew seldom-heard unheard colors, intonation and tension.
Baritone Luca Salsi, a menacing Renato, arrived in Chicago on Sunday for four days of rehearsals after singing the role last month at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. Muti first conducted “Ballo” at Florence’s Maggio Musicale in 1972 with Richard Tucker, then in a 1975 EMI recording with Plácido Domingo followed by a 2001 staging at La Scala with Salvatore Licitra.
“He’s the last of the greatest,” Salsi said. “His magic is to explain the simplicity of the score. Sometimes, with some conductors, they try to find something strange or different, but Verdi, he wrote everything. You just have to be able to explain why.”
Muti did not alter the libretto in which a white Judge sings a racist insult toward Ulrica, a Black fortune teller accused of witchcraft: “dell’immondo sangue de’ negri (she has Black blood).” Muti says Verdi meant the line to highlight the Judge’s intolerance.
“In many theaters in this country and abroad, for the story of politically correct they change the phrase,” he told the orchestra. “We should not change so that the next generations must know the abomination that has been done for centuries. If you don’t change, you don’t solve the problem.”
Fidelity to original intent causes him to reject switches such as having Otello portrayed as white and Desdemona as Black, and having Carmen kill Don Jose instead of the other way around, arguing there is nothing in the score or libretto to support such reverses.
“We cannot change the history, because if we want to change the history, we should change everything, starting from the Greeks, from the Phoenicians, from the Romans," he said. "We have to keep the horrible things of the past, to tell the young people that it was wrong.”
Muti’s career has included tenures with Italy’s Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (1968-80), London’s Philharmonia Orchestra (1972-82), the Philadelphia Orchestra (1980-92), Milan’s Teatro alla Scala (1986-2005).
By presenting his CSO operas without a staging, he tries to have the audience focus on the music. And with the CSO, he avoids opera houses that he told the post-concert reception “are full of really bad traditions.”
“Verdi has been for years and years, has been performed like a sort of parody of the verismo, like a bad Puccini,” he said.
More than any other of Muti’s interpresetations, Verdi will be his legacy.
“I wanted to thank the orchestra and the chorus in this long voyage that we have gone on Verdi in all these years,” he said. “I will treasure the memories of this wonderful music-making with you, the orchestra and the chorus, and I feel it is a gift from God that I received in the end of my life to do these operas with you and this time with this wonderful group of singers.”