Muti’s Legacy: Respecting Composers, Rejecting Revisionists

By RONALD BLUM

CHICAGO (AP) — In the twilight of his musical direction of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti candidly described his legacy and implored musicians to remember his instructions on Giuseppe Verdi’s operas: use 19th-century scores without altered notes.

He urged them to reject the concepts of modern directors in search of relevance.

“In 20 to 30 years, when everything falls apart, you might think Muti was right,” the 80-year-old Italian conductor told the orchestra ahead of Wednesday’s rehearsal.

Muti conducts three concerts of ‘Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball)’ at the Orchestra Hall through Tuesday, the culmination of a Verdi project that included the Requiem, ‘Otello’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘Falstaff’ and “Aïda”. ”

“The problem today is that these operas are often in the hands of directors who, with few exceptions, destroy the opera,” he said in an interview with The Associated. Press after Wednesday’s rehearsal, blaming 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 a whole arc without a break,” Muti said. “In each opera, we find all the elements that will become important for the next opera. And the first Verdi, the famous Verdi of um-pa-pa, um-pa-pa, um-pa-pa, he didn’t want to write um-pa-pa. It has always been played this way by dilettantes or chefs who do not know.

Muti, whose contract in Chicago runs through the 2022-23 season, sees himself as the descendant of solid Italian conductors dating back to Arturo Toscanini and Tulio Serafin. He’s not a fan of most contemporary directors.

“A lot of them – most of them don’t read music. Some are completely deaf,” he said. too. There’s nothing new to transpose opera to today. In the end, when everyone gets tired, people will start thinking – maybe two generations from now – why don’t we try not to see and experience again what this world was like?

He used the Unpublished Critical Edition of Verdi’s Complete Works, a joint project of the University of Chicago Press and Casa Ricordi begun in the 1970s and still decades after its completion. Editor-in-chief Francesco Izzo traveled from Britain to be in the audience,

Muti insists that reading the score is not enough. One must understand the motivation and purpose of each note and abandon additions to the 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 musical director and performer we’ve had,” said Friedman, who joined the orchestra in 1962 and played under Fritz Reiner, Jean Martinon, Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim and Bernard Haitink. . “Let’s be honest, great orchestras can often be on what I call autopilot, which is that all the notes are there, very virtuosic. But it takes a conductor with real imagination and a real sense of what’s possible in a big orchestra to turn that autopilot into something truly special.

A standout cast on Thursday included Lebanese soprano Joyce El-Khoury who gave a shimmering performance in her first role as Amelia. Russian Yulia Matochkina displayed prodigious mezzo-soprano as the witch Ulrica, Italian soprano Damiana Mizzi had exuberant coloratura as the Oscar page, and tenor Francesco Meli was a dashing if somewhat waning Riccardo. Muti drew colors, intonations and tensions rarely heard.

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 the Maggio Musicale in Florence in 1974 with Richard Tucker, then in an EMI recording in 1975 with Plácido Domingo followed by a 2001 staging at La Scala with Salvatore Licitra.

“He’s the last of the greats,” Salsi said. “Its magic is to explain the simplicity of the score. Sometimes with certain conductors they try to find something strange or different, but Verdi wrote it all. It is enough to be able to explain why.

Muti did not alter the libretto in which a white judge sings a racial slur towards Ulrica, a black fortune teller accused of witchcraft: “dell’immondo sangue de’ negri (she has black blood)”. Muti says Verdi meant the line to emphasize the judge’s intolerance.

“In many theaters in this country and abroad, for the story of political correctness, they change the phrase,” he told the orchestra. “We must not change so that the next generations know the abomination that has been committed for centuries. If you don’t change, you don’t solve the problem.

Loyalty to the original intent causes him to reject switches such as the depiction of Otello in white and Desdemona in black, and Carmen killing Don Jose instead of the other way around, arguing that there is no is nothing in the score or the libretto to support such setbacks.

“We cannot change history, because if we want to change history, we have to change everything, starting with the Greeks, the Phoenicians, the Romans,” he said. “We have to keep the awful things from the past, tell the young people it was wrong.

Muti’s career included tenures with Italy’s Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (1968-80), Philharmonia Orchestra London (1972-82), Philadelphia Orchestra (1980-92), Teatro alla Scala Milan (1986-2005).

By presenting his CSO operas without staging, he tries to focus the audience on the music. And with the CSO, he avoids the opera houses which, according to him, during the post-concert reception, “are full of very bad traditions”.

“Verdi was for years and years interpreted as a sort of parody of verismo, as a bad Puccini,” he said.

More than any other interpretation of Muti, Verdi will be his legacy.

“I wanted to thank the orchestra and the choir for this long journey that we have made on Verdi for all these years,” he said. “I will cherish the memories of this wonderful musical creation with you, the orchestra and the choir, and I think it was a gift from God that I received at the end of my life to make these operas with you and this time with this wonderful group of singers.

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