Muti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, take Manhattan with “Otello”

April 16, 2011
By George Loomis

Riccardo Muti, Krassimira Stoyanova, Aleksandrs Antonenko and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus following Friday night's performance of Verdi's "Otello" at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Few events of the current musical season were viewed with a keener sense of anticipation than the concert performance of Verdi’s Otello by Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Friday evening, the orchestra’s New York debut under its new music director and the first of three concerts by them over the weekend in Carnegie Hall.

Indeed, interest seemed only to increase as the date grew nearer, fueled by glowing reports of the conductor’s renewed vigor following his apparent triumph over health problems, which plagued the current season earlier. Nor did it hurt that his performances of Verdi’s Nabucco in Rome last month received much favorable publicity when he encored the famous chorus Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate in protest of the cultural budget cuts propounded by the national government of Silvio Berlusconi.

Of course, it wasn’t just New Yorkers who looked forward to the performance. Members of the orchestra as well as Chicago music lovers were presumably itching to show off their prize catch of a conductor in New York’s prime concert venue.

They surely could not have been more pleased with the result. As many New Yorkers discovered last season, when Muti conducted Attila at the Metropolitan Opera, his way with Verdi is unmatched by any other conductor active today. Other aficionados will have known this already, some, perhaps, as a result of concert performances Muti conducted years ago with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, which included Rigoletto, Nabucco and Macbeth in the 1980s.

One can only hope that Otello signals a renewal of Muti-led concert performances of operas in Carnegie, for the performance was superb. I have heard Muti conduct Otello twice in the theater—once at La Scala, once in Salzburg. Both were memorable. But this time, with Muti and his great orchestra onstage front-and-center, the focus was squarely on what he and they would do with the score, and the results were revelatory.

There was a ratcheting up of the orchestra’s prominence, so that musical details were there to savor, even though in most cases they would probably have been sensed in the theater as well. And without deprecating Attila, the late masterpiece Otello has so much more to offer. It would be senseless to single out specific moments in the score where Muti found something special to emphasize, since such moments were so pervasive.

But, far from bogging the music down with details, Muti’s points of emphasis served consistently to give impetus to the music and the drama. Tempos did not dawdle. And Muti was unusually active on the podium, using vigorous gestures to signal just what he wanted to obtain from the orchestra.

Under the circumstances, it almost seemed a bonus that the principal singers were highly accomplished as well. Aleksandrs Antonenko’s Otello has gained in refinement since he sing the role under Muti in 2008 in Salzburg, but the splendidly ringing voice, heard to such fine effect as the Pretender in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Boris Godunov, has lost none of its capacity to thrill. The voice tends to sound breathy in midrange, but Antonenko sometimes capitalized on this for expressive purposes, as in the monologue Dio! mi potevi.

As Desdemona, Krassimira Stoyanova served further notice that she is one of the finest lirico-spinto sopranos around today. Her silvery voice and nuanced singing made the Willow Song and Ave Maria a treat, but she also passed the many telltale tests along the way, from her lovely Amen risponda to the limpid tone she brought to the otherworldly moment when, after Desdemona has been strangled, she proclaims her innocence. There have been more imposing Iagos than Carlo Guelfi, but his way with the text was often vivid.

Juan Francisco Gatell’s cleanly produced tenor voice made for a fine portrayal as Cassio, and there were excellent contributions from Michael Spyres (Roderigo) and Eric Owens (Lodovico). This was a performance to treasure.

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