Muti returns to Chicago Symphony, victorious in Verdi’s “Otello”

April 08, 2011

Riccardo Muti leads soloists, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and CSO Chorus in Verdi's "Otello" Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

After two false starts, a pair of serious medical crises, a dizzying flurry of canceled appearances, and much unease and speculation in the music community and city at large, it looks like the third time is the charm for Riccardo Muti’s inaugural season with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The CSO’s music director returned to a hero’s welcome Thursday night in the first of three concert performances of Verdi’s Otello, Muti’s first local podium appearance since last September.

Following the soloists on stage — after an extended pause that probably had more than a few audience members thinking, “Not again!” — the Italian conductor made his entrance to a vociferous roar. Muti acknowledged the audience’s cheers and applause, but when it started to turn into a standing ovation, he abruptly wheeled around, gave the downbeat and the cataclysmic chord of Verdi’s opening storm thundered through the hall.

If there was any doubt about the state of Muti’s physical condition following this season’s two previous medical emergencies –an acute gastric ailment last fall and an undiagnosed heart arrhythmia in February, which caused him to pass out and sustain a fractured jaw — the conductor quickly answered any skeptics. He was undeniably in fine fettle, healthy, enjoying himself and extremely animated, even making little aerial jumps off the podium at moments of high excitement.

Muti’s mastery in Verdi is no secret, but even so, the magnificent propulsive performance of Otello led by the CSO’s music director was a combustible and extraordinary achievement. For all intent and purposes, the Riccardo Muti era really began Thursday night in Chicago.

Concert versions of opera are always an odd hybrid with the searing primary emotions acted out by tuxedoed singers looking like a group of culturally ambitious maitre d’s.

Yet the lack of theatrical trappings in this concert performance made the soft brush-strokes and ingenious subtleties of Verdi’s music and scoring stand out in high relief even more, aided by some artful stage management and sound effects. The projected surtitles allowed one to appreciate the tautness and poetic imagery of Arrigo Boito’s libretto. And most importantly, the dramatic intensity and inspired vocalism of the soloists made the lack of sets and costumes virtually irrelevant.

Otello is a work that Muti has conducted numerous times, and his complete command and identification with this remarkable score was manifest throughout, from the massive swagger of the Brindisi to the luminous string writing in the love scene and the nerve-wracking intensity of the finale. Even with two intermissions, the three hours flew by. Rarely will one experience Verdi’s dramatic moments and big choruses with this level of bravura brilliance and almost physical sonic impact.

Of course, it helped that Muti fielded a largely terrific cast of soloists for Verdi’s setting of Shakespeare’s tragedy of the Moor general driven to madness and murder of his innocent wife Desdemona by the wiles of the evil Iago.

Aleksandrs Antonenko’s timbre is not very Italianate, lacking in tonal warmth and idiomatic ping on top. But the Latvian tenor certainly possesses the requisite dark tone and dramatic heft for the title role, manifest from his stentorian Esultate! entrance.

Apart from a surprisingly anodyne oath duet, Antonenko delivered a vividly characterized and compellingly sung Otello. He rose to the challenge of Niun mi tema superbly, singing with expressive nuance and making palpable the Moor’s regret and devastation for what he has wrought. Antonenko brought such jarring conviction to the murder scene, you half-thought for a moment that he was going to throttle his Desdemona, Krassimira Stoyanova.

Also making her CSO debut, Stoyanova was sensational as the doomed Desdemona. The Bulgarian soprano has a radiant instrument and brought refined tone and deep feeling to the role of Otello’s unjustly accused wife. Stoyanova’s Willow Song was heart-breaking, the Ave Maria beautifully rendered and almost unbearably poignant in the soprano’s feather-light pianissimos.

As Iago, Carlo Guelfi was the evening’s wild card, a late replacement for the scheduled Nicola Alaimo, who dropped out for medical reasons. The veteran baritone’s voice was fitfully wanting in dramatic cut and projection, underpowered in Si, pel ciel and his Credo lacking force and black malevolence. Still Guelfi clearly has a seasoned feel for the role and made a sturdy enough villain conveying the manipulative character’s evil and odious essence.

As always, Muti proved his own man textually, opting for Verdi’s revision of the ensemble that closes Act 3, in what could well be its belated U.S debut. The conductor made a case for the retooling with its brevity and transparency (the planned murder of Cassio comes through much more clearly). I confess a guilty pleasure for the greater richness and scale of the original’s more elaborate ensemble but it was fascinating to hear Verdi’s later, more spare thoughts.

Juan Francisco Gatelli displayed a vibrant, youthful tenor as Cassio and Barbara Di Castri was a dramatically strong Emilia. It was luxury casting indeed to have Eric Owens, fresh from the title role in the Lyric Opera’s Hercules in the small part of the ambassador Lodovico and his sonorous bass-baritone made fine dramatic impact. Michael Spyres as Roderigo, Paolo Battaglia as Montano and David Govertsen as the Herald filled out the outstanding cast.

After a couple recent lackluster outings, the CSO Chorus, directed by Duain Wolfe, was back in top form, putting across Verdi’s soaring ensembles with daunting corporate power, vital articulation and fluently blended vocalism. Led by Josephine Lee, the gifted youngsters of Chicago Children’s Choir made a fine assist.

But it was really Muti’s night along with his highly responsive Chicago Symphony Orchestra colleagues. Clearly realizing the importance of this occasion–for their music director, themselves, next week’s New York trip and this new partnership—the orchestra played their collective hearts out for their Neapolitan maestro. (Note: For the second week in a row violinist Stephanie Jeong of the New York Philharmonic was seated next to Robert Chen in the first stand as guest associate concertmaster.)

Untold felicities abounded—the wondrous delicacy of the cello quartet that frames the love scene; the immense swagger of the Brindisi from chorus and orchestra; the subtly graded dynamics of the harp solo that closes Act 1; the majestic brass in Otello’s farewell to his glory; the sickly worm-like bassoons as Iago disingenuously warns Otello of jealousy; and the poignant English horn solo that opens the final act.

Beg, borrow, or steal — well, maybe don’t steal — but do get a ticket for the repeat Otello performances on Saturday or Tuesday. This is the event of the music season and one that no Chicago music lover can afford to miss.

Verdi’s Otello will be repeated at 7 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday and April 15 in New York at Carnegie Hall.; 312-294-3000.

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