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Riccardo Muti
22 Apr 2011

Otello, Carnegie Hall

By the time he emerged from retirement with Otello, his twenty-seventh opera, at 73, there wasn’t much Giuseppe Verdi didn’t know about how to make an orchestra do his bidding, set the mood of each line of a good story, piling excitement on excitement and letting the tension mutate to something gentler at the right times in order to make the outburst to follow the more demoniac.

Giuseppe Verdi: Otello

Otello: Aleksandrs Antonenko; Desdemona: Krassimira Stoyanova; Iago: Carlo Guelfi; Emilia: Barbara Di Castri; Cassio: Juan Francisco Gatell; Rodrigo: Michael Spyres; Lodovico: Eric Owens. Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Riccardo Muti. At Carnegie Hall, April 15.

Above: Riccardo Muti


This makes the score one of particular delight to an instrument as skilled and as superbly led as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (and its equally illustrious chorus), and the opera’s appeal clear to its director, Riccardo Muti, a former music director of La Scala.

When, at sixteen, I told my father that I had discovered opera, he got me my first opera recording: the von Karajan Otello with Del Monaco and Tebaldi, both singers considered definitive interpreters of the roles at that time. (In the Rome Opera House, there is a wall-size bronze plaque dedicated to Del Monaco, with his profile and the bar lines for Otello’s opening “Esultate…,” a terrific way to remember a tenor, eh?) I listened to this first recording devoutly, and then encountered the opera in performance in perhaps Franco Zeffirelli’s finest bit of stagecraft at the Met, under Böhm, with Zylis-Gara, Vickers and Milnes singing and acting it superbly. And there have been many great Otellos for me since then (McCracken, Domingo, King, the frighteningly quiet Willow Song of Pilar Lorengar, the horrifying Iago of Wassily Janulako), but there were things in the orchestration that I had not noticed until the Chicago’s performance before a packed Carnegie Hall last Friday. This points up one of two advantages about a concert performance of an opera (the first being that no stage director to distract you from the piece being performed with his own irrelevance): You can hear the orchestra more clearly, often playing with more care, than you can in the opera house, where there is a covered pit and the distractions of the stage and the attention (and the limelight) squarely on the singers.

Riccardo Muti, who has conducted hardly any opera in this country, got his start in the opera house and his original fame as a stickler for the letter of the score. This has led to many productions of operas of an earlier era that aficionados deplore as lacking the high spirits that idiosyncratic singers (of the best sort) could bring to them. Muti’s attention to detail, to the symphonic picture and to dramatic propulsion suits some operas better than others, and Otello is a case where the composer knew just what he wanted and took infinite pains to achieve it. Muti has great fun with it, reaching out to each section with clutching, pleading hands, wooing them into the dynamic he desired. There were times during the lighter, merrier moments with which Verdi intended the dark drama to be studded—the drinking song, the “flower” chorus, the “handkerchief” trio in Act III—that an airier spirit sometimes eluded his attention, but placing the Chicago Symphony in the hands of such a technician produces gilded, glowing effect upon effect, each tremolo wind in perfect tune (from sighing violins to threatening, murmurous basses), each thunderous brass outburst ideally calculated.

The singers, all well chosen, were not in quite such superlative form as the orchestra and chorus. Aleksandrs Antonenko, singing though ailing, in Italian rather better than his French in last year’s Les Troyens at the same hall, demonstrated real tenor ping (as the aficionados say) on Otello’s abrupt rises from the conversational to the furious and was never overwhelmed by the orchestra. His quieter, more tragic moments were affecting as well. Krassimira Stoyanova, who has sung Desdemona to acclaim from Vienna to Barcelona, was occasionally flat in the Act I love duet, but her placid, dignified bewilderment in the rest of the opera was true and sweet, her Willow Song and Ave Maria quietly devastating. Carlo Guelfi, not always the most exciting of baritones, sang a worthy, menacing Iago, with diabolic energy to his cries of “O gioia!” as his wicked plots moved to fruition. Juan Francisco Gatell’s Cassio and the few (but full and lovely) notes of Barbara Di Castri’s Emilia made one eager to hear more of their singing. Only Eric Owens, the growling Lodovico, proved a disappointment.

John Yohalem

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