In the Byzantine halls of Italian politics there's nothing remotely close to a straight line from point A to B but the road that seems to have led to Riccardo Muti's appointment -- he'll have to choose the title in the end, Music Director (Mayor Alemanno's -- and not only his -- favorite option) or Principal Conductor (Muti's fave, it is said) -- at Opera di Roma has been remarkably straightforward.
At least for Italian standards. And if one has the patience to go back in time a little.
In the fall of 2006, it was determined that Riccardo Muti -- who back then, a year and a half after being ousted as Scala Music Director, was the world's most sought after freelance conductor -- would add to his commitments an occasional presence at Opera di Roma. But Muti's commitments back then -- with the exception of his student orchestra, the Luigi Cherubini -- were on a freelance basis -- his habitual gigs with the Wiener Philharmoniker, a bit of Paris here, a NY Phil guest spot there. Some Salzburg (he has a nice house there) in the Summer. Mozart's birthday party. Maggio Musicale, his old home, his first important post as a young man. Verdi's Requiem in Westminster cathedral with Philharmonia, etc.
High profile gigs, but it was all as baton-for-hire; a new life -- at 65 -- for the man who had taken over Maggio Musicale at 28, Philarmonia at 31 as Klemperer's successor, Philadelphia at 38 as Ormandy's successor. Then la Scala, at 45: Music Director after Serafin, Toscanini, De Sabata, Cantelli, Giulini, Abbado.
Not precisely the resume -- nor the psychological profile -- of someone who would retire at 65 and spend time with the grandkids, conduct the occasional gig. Especially when you consider that Muti, beyond meticulous about music, his true obsession, is a man with very, very few hobbies -- if any. Famously clueless about technology (he mistakenly thought the iPod had to do with horses -- "hyppo"-something), uninterested in exotic cuisine (rely on him to tell you which Italian restaurants around the world offer good Italian cooking -- that's his thing, and he's a simple eater, some pasta and some fish, not particularly a gourmet), not into fast cars. His villa in Pantelleria is obviously expensive and very nice, but it's no monster mansion like, for example, Maazel's Virginia home. He does like soccer, good Italian as he is -- but besides the occasional Napoli (and Juventus) games, whenever he can, he's not that much into that either. This is a guy who, for fun, would pore over Cimarosa's manuscript for a forgotten opera buffa; or commission, in his Scala times of absolute power, the first edition of Salieri's L'Europa Riconosciuta in two centuries, digging up some Salieri ballets to replace the ones lost for his score (and then proceed to drill his vision of the lead character into poor Diana Damrau over months of rehearsals -- Diana seemed to like the obsessiveness, it is said -- another born perfectionist, she likes her conductors to be particular about stuff). Invent some weird Mozart/De Falla/Scriabin concert program for the Wiener Philharmoniker -- that's what rocks Muti's boat. Early retirement at what for a conductor is early middle age? No, grazie.
Anyway, Muti's comeback progressed with what amounted -- back in 2006 and 2007 -- to be significant baby steps (it's all relative, OK): his stewardship of the revived Whitsun Festival in Salzburg (where he has been bringing back to life lost scores of the great half-forgotten Settecento Southern Italians like Paisiello and Jommelli); the (short-lived, as it turned out) spot as Guest Conductor of a then-Alan Gilbert-less NY Phil. The big turning point came last year -- 2008 is key to the understanding of what is going on now in Muti's career. When, last May 5, he accepted the Music Director post at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it was clear that whatever disappointment -- sadness, whatever you want to call it, it did happen and it was bad -- had struck the once-fierce conductor after his de facto firing by la Scala's orchestra -- had ended.
What had begun back in 2006 as some sort of guest spot for a celebrity conductor in celebrity-thirsty Opera di Roma -- an opera here, a concert there, grazie maestro -- shifted gears when Muti, last summer , chose -- and obtained from management at Opera di Roma -- to bring his Salzburg Otello to Roma and to open on December 6, one day before la Scala's traditional prima of December 7. Pitting his (already tried out in Salzburg that August) Otello against la Scala's Don Carlo conducted by Daniele Gatti, the (as yet unofficial) future Music Director of the Milanese theater, Muti's likely successor at the helm (cue the fiasco of that Don Carlo -- tenor Giuseppe Filianoti fired 24 hours before opening night and replaced with an unknown, impressively stout American who has remained, since then, still pretty unknown, the boos that buried -- unfairly, in Opera Chic's view -- Gatti and the director, Stephane Braunschweig, who dreamed up a strikingly anodyne, flashback-heavy, all-white, anemic staging for Verdi's dark tale).
Less than three weeks after the Otello-Don Carlo duel, conductor Ennio Morricone was replaced as a member of the board of Opera di Roma by the most powerful political journalist in Italy, RAI TV's Bruno Vespa -- more powerful than the late Tim Russert used to be, to give our American readers an idea of that kind of weight he pulls on a daily basis in his political talk-show.
Vespa (married to a very powerful top executive of the Justice Department in Rome) has been for years, famously, a Muti fan -- and was the journalist to whom Muti gave his first major post-Scala interview back in 2005.
Rome's political climate had changed -- after many years of center-left government under two different mayoral administrations, political winds in the country had changed so much that Berlusconi's win in a national landslide also created the climate for a change of city government in Rome (Milan, in the North, being a center-right stronghold safely since the mid-1990s in a as-yet uninterrupted string of victories in the elections for mayor).
The gentlemanly. well-liked Francesco Ernani's position as General Manager of Opera di Roma appeared immediately on shakier ground after Gianni Alemanno's win; in February 2009 Alemanno indicated his wish to replace Ernani early (against the unions wishes), whose mandate would expire naturally in early 2010. Among Alemanno's reasons for a quick change in leadership at the opera house, the allegedly bad -- worse than thought by most -- financial situation of the company, especially vis-a-vis Berlusconi's government cuts to the 2009 budget for the arts, in large part swallowed by the chronically cash-hungry, in-debt opera houses around the country.
From then on things happen quick.
Unofficial conversations with Muti (who's in Rome rehearsing Gluck's Iphigénie En Aulide, with Wagner's ending -- in French, pure Muti) increase from then on; would he accept a post as Music Director? Among those meetings, a big, not-so-secret dinner at Vespa's home in downtown Rome with Muti, Alemanno, Prime Minister Berlusconi himself and various political heavies (a Cardinal among them, this is Rome after all). It is highly unlikely soccer was discussed at depth, at that dinner, despite Muti's interest in the sport and Berlusconi's ownership of AC Milan team. Religion? Muti is non-practising, Berlusconi a divorced ladies man. Music? Berlusconi, not an opera fan, skipped Muti's premiere of Gluck for a comedy show at a nearby theater the other night (Alemanno and the President of the Italian Republic were at the opera instead).
One suspects the issue of Opera di Roma's future administration, artistic and otherwise, was indeed touched at that dinner.
The stubborn reality is that Muti -- Rome needs him more than he needs them, even if the post would be sweet revenge against la Scala -- would not say yes outright, not as long as the situation at the Opera remained unclear -- who would be the new General manager, after Ernani? What about the cuts? Muti also appears to be wary of the actual "Music Director" title -- still sore from Scala's ju-jitsu fights with unions and the then-General Manager. And anyway, he shouldn't personally conduct more than four operas each season anyway -- the Chicago job is not in question, and it'll kick into gear in 2010. Then there's Cherubini. And two more Whitsun Festivals in Salzburg. So there's talk of Muti accepting a "Principal Conductor" title -- but with plenty of de facto power, unlike, for example, Daniel Barenboim's vastly ceremonial title of "Maestro Scaligero" at la Scala, where Barenboim brings a few high-profile gigs a year over from Berlin and for the rest it's GM Stephane Lissner, all-powerful, who calls all the shots.
Alemanno -- a man not necessarily known for his subtle approach to governance, nor someone prone to making concessions out of the blue (he still wears proudly around his neck a Celtic cross that he considers, he says, a religious symbol, while it remains for many Italians a neo-Fascist icon) -- might have overplayed his hand in the Ernani removal -- to forcefully state the case of Opera di Roma's alleged financial grave troubles, a 15-days official inquiry has begun that could actually drive, at the end of what amounts to an audit, the company into receivership.
Many sources seem to indicate that there is no actual legal basis to throw the company into a possibly catastrophic receivership -- Muti wouldn't touch a company in such dire straits. But this has indeed weakened Ernani's position even further. If, in two weeks, the audit finds no grounds for the receivership (Alemanno himself said the receivership is far from inevitable), and a new GM is already en route to Rome (earlier today Alemanno indicated current Teatro Lirico di Cagliari GM Maurizio Pietrantonio as a candidate -- the unions don't seem too much against the nomination, at first sight), Muti will take the job.
The four strikes that have just been announced and would sink Muti's Iphigénie?
A reasonable response by the unions to Alemanno's battering ram -- the audit, the threat of receivership. It's a bargaining chip -- Muti as Music Director means visibility and fresh money from sponsors and otherwise -- Alemanno's benevolence will be a sure thing, he has spoken already of "reviving" the company -- once people of his liking run it of course. The smart money says the strikes -- at least two, or even all of them -- would be revoked. At least if Pietrantonio sails in, and Muti finally says yes.