(Click here to reach the photo album with eleven images taken from the performance.)
Opera Chic wasn’t living in Milan yet during Maestro Muti’s tumultuous reign, but she has been privy to all of the stories:
The (mostly true) urban legends about his own office at Teatro alla Scala having been designed to be twice as big as the GM’s; about his thinly-veiled contempt for both the orchestra, the critics, and essentially every contemporary conductor (excluding Carlos Kleiber); about his very public dissing of then-La Scala GM Carlo Fontana (a favorite pastime of il maestro was to mercilessly mock Fontana’s rudimentary English with grotesque and loud impersonations within the La Scala offices lol); about Muti having hired Karajan’s former butler for his own Salzburg villa, shortly after the maestro’s death; about the specific instructions that he gave the builders of his villa’s pool, demanding that it had to be bigger than the dimensions of Karajan’s; about his very badly-disguised hate for a universally loved and admired saintly conductor whose only crime was actually demanding – and obtaining – a higher conducting fee than Muti’s own; about his stubborn, sneering refusal to even entertain the possibility that the man who had conducted almost one-hundred times in Bayreuth could do Wagner at least as well as Muti himself could; about the endless constantly updated s**t-list and his sycophantic ass-kissers; about his bad moods, and his talent for needlessly alienating people who would otherwise had been friends and allies in time of needs; about his Napoleon-like sense of self-importance.
Well, Opera Chic has heard them all.
And after last night’s Don Pasquale, she *so* doesn’t care.
Young Muti, barely in his thirties, used to dazzle the most impressive audience with the beauty of his Donizetti (impressing Karajan himself), the great power of his Verdi (his Attila is awesome), and with his Leoncavallo (Opera d’Oro has a great 1971 Pagliacci).
Muti was the Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra from 1973–1982. Then Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1980–1992. And ended his last appointment as Music Director of La Scala in Milan from 1986–2005. He's sixty-five years old, and he has finally stopped dying his hair jet-black [as last night was the first time I'd seen him sporting a lovely dark-gray tint instead of a shade more appropriate for Cio-Cio-San.]
A wonderfully intuitive conductor, he became an extraordinary Mozart conductor (especially the Mozart-DaPonte Italian operas, with the exception being his super-heavy 1995-1996 Masonic Die Zauberflöte overt with symbolism, and lacking in grace). He demonstrated great skill for Rossini, and his keen eye for interesting nuance (in his La Traviata, Violetta actually dies of true heartbreak, not of the lameness of the clichéd tuberculosis), which always kept things interesting.
But by the mid-1990s, things had started to deteriorate: trigger-happy in blacklisting singers and directors he either didn’t approve-of, or were seen as too “independent-minded”, he started to buy into the Messianic mystique his fans (in good faith) and lackeys (in bad) that were eagerly spreading everywhere. He started to obsess about traveling back in time, feeding his recalcitrant audiences a steady diet of the most obscure selections from Cherubini, Spontini, Salieri, and Gluck. Simultaneously, the number of world-class conductors appearing onstage at La Scala started dropping (for that he blamed his nemesis, the actual GM), the baffling decision to bypass the great Wagnerian Giuseppe Sinopoli for the Tetralogy (that he conducted himself with dubious results).
Those who have known him well during the Teatro alla Scala years acknowledge that his main problem may have been a lack of faith in his own intuition, his spirito musicale. He then decided to go intellectual, to go “deep” instead of doing what he knew he could do best – thus giving up on his facility for beautiful music. His talent for a light, driven sound that managed not to be shallow ended in the backseat. Muti wanted to be a thinker. Being a wonderfully musical conductor clearly wasn’t enough for him. That his many enemies were going to kick him out – the way Abbado was kicked out in ’86 – became all too clear. It was just a matter of time.
He is now a free agent, conducting in Vienna and Salzburg especially, with his beloved VPO. He says he loves his kids, Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini that he created from scratch, taking a high school band to a beautiful orchestra. He has other commitments, but he clearly belongs elsewhere -- maybe post-Barenboim Chicago, maybe Philly again? This Ravenna Don Pasquale clearly shows what a waste it is to keep this man in the provinces.
I arrived in Ravenna in a deluge of rain, and chose wisely to dress sensibly: Flat Prada black riding boots tucked into Agnes B black pants, a grey cashmere vest, a black James Smith umbrella, a Fay black windbreaker thrown over, a grey cashmere Marc Jacobs skull-cap and a Kate Spade nylon tote (hey, it was pouring). Being this as the first instance I’ve seen Maestro Muti conduct, I could barely take my eyes off him for the entire opera, at times forgetting to follow the singers on stage. He led not only the entire orchestra, but had complete, absolute monopoly over the entire stage direction, manipulating the chorus and singers with something as insignificant as raising a single eyebrow. Dance, puppets! Dance! He was extremely precise, calculated, and professional, and replete in full Muti-idiosyncrasies. He pwnd the entire show.
He split the sparse, young orchestra into the strangest configuration, with woodwinds in the final row, sharing strata with percussion. Brass was stationed the last row on the right, with the Basses on the far left, and lighter strings filling-in the entire center.
Muti’s characteristic galloping was in full-effect, as he ripped through the score at breakneck pace. He stayed light, crisp, and driven, but never shallow. Although Donizetti’s Don Pasquale becomes trifling in parts, Muti dexterously remained forceful yet somber, which balanced-out the levity. The orchestra never once collapsed or vanisehd, but unfortunately, the singers just couldn’t keep-up with Muti’s strict demands. This was one of the first instances where the orchestra completely out-shone the singers, as Muti's sound soared above the heads of the performers.
Claudio Desderi sang Don Pasquale, and although proved himself as a playful actor, his exhaustion was apparent (he had previously sung in the December 14, 16, and 17th productions), and he was stripped-thin, basically performed recitative, while simultaneously falling behind Muti’s conducting the entire opera. What he did provide was an anchoring sense of seniority, as the rest of the cast was comprised of thirty-somethings, adding credibility to the libretto.
Mario Cassi’s Dottore Malatesta was delightful, but Francisco Gatell’s Ernesto definitely stole the admiration of the audience. The sweet tenor had a Flórez-esque sound and color. Com'é gentil - la notte a mezzo april was gorgeous. Btw, speaking of Flórez: ex-girlfriend Laura Giordano made herself a tepid appearance as Norina. What was up with this performance? Everyone must have been really tired, because Giordano's usually arching coloratura sounded striped...and homegirl looks like Katie Holmes, which is a bad sign for this Scientology-phobe. But this performance wasn’t really about the singing. It was about the energy, youth, and freshness, which the entire cast pulled-off with aplomb.
Btw, Mrs. Muti was there last night in gorgeous crème-colored cashmere (see picture above), but wore a pair of sunglasses the entire time. Four cameras were stationed throughout the theater and they were clearly filming, so eventually there will be a DVD.