The Chicago Symphony Orchestra in New York (1) – Verdi’s “Otello”

Verdi, Otello (in concert) : Soloists, Riccardo Muti (conductor), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 15.4.2011 (BH)

Verdi : Otello (1884-1886)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Riccardo Muti, Music Director and Conductor
Alexsandrs Antonenko, Tenor (Otello)
Krassimira Stoyanova, Soprano (Desdemona)
Carlo Guelfi, Baritone (Iago)
Barbara Di Castri, Mezzo-Soprano (Emilia)
Juan Francisco Gatell, Tenor (Cassio)
Michael Spyres, Tenor (Roderigo)
Paolo Battaglia, Bass (Montano)
Eric Owens, Bass-Baritone (Lodovico)
David Govertsen, Bass (A herald)

Chicago Symphony Chorus, Duain Wolfe, Director
Chicago Children’s Choir, Josephine Lee, Artistic Director

When Riccardo Muti finally took the stage at Carnegie Hall to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Verdi’s Otello, the ecstatic ovation that broke out was no accident. Given his recent health scare – being treated for a fractured jaw when he fainted on the podium earlier this year – his reappearance had the buzz of a rock concert. Sold out for months, the house was packed with fans of the orchestra, opera devotees, lucky journalists, and most of all, Muti admirers eager to hear the 69-year-old maestro tackle an opera he adores. I doubt anyone was disappointed.

Verdi’s penultimate opera offers endless opportunities for a heady experience: vividly etched characters (thanks to Boito’s libretto) given memorable turns, with an orchestral palette that brings them to life in scene after scene. Muti knows this music about as well as anyone on the planet, so to hear his thoughts on the score, with the orchestra lifted out of the pit and placed in Carnegie’s sonic hothouse – it doesn’t get any better.

Despite a brief announcement that Alexsandrs Antonenko was slightly ill, one might not have known, given his performance in the title role. Perhaps he channeled any discomfort into creating the powerful result, but I detected nothing amiss in his forceful, passionate singing. Krassimira Stoyanova sang a deeply touching Desdemona, especially in the famous “Willow Song,” which had the man next to me unapologetically weeping softly. And Carlo Guelfi made a positively noxious Iago without overdoing it – quietly, chillingly subversive – and only sounded better as the night wore on. His Act II monologue was delivered with dispassionate sliminess. As Emilia, Barbara di Castri showed warm vocal presence and was especially effective in the desperate final scene, and Juan Francisco Gatell made an empathetic Cassio whose plight surely saddened many. Completing the excellent cast were Michael Spyres as Roderigo, Paolo Battalia as Montano, David Govertsen as a herald, and Eric Owens – memorable for many New York roles in the last few years – as Lodovico.

But ultimately it was Muti’s night, and everyone seemed to sense that something unusual was in the air. The enormous Chicago Symphony Chorus and Children’s Choir were predictably focused, enunciating clearly and with a massive tone, free from the glare that can sometimes enter when a large group belts out fortissimos. I doubt there will be an opening storm scene to top this one for decades. The women and children were especially fine in Act II, with a beautiful role for the orchestra’s mandolin.

There were too many brilliant orchestral moments to list them all (this review could double in size), but the end of Act II showed the onstage forces at their best. As Iago’s plan began to take shape, one could almost feel the evil coursing through the orchestra as well as the singers; I can still see Muti’s body swaying, hands lowering almost to the floor, as if trying to snare a snake.

In a way, an opera in concert can sometimes trump a staged production, since all attention is focused on the music; the imagination can have free rein. Yes, one must credit the composer, but Muti’s expertise in pacing and phrasing, combined with the hair-trigger response of an orchestra on high alert, made Verdi’s extraordinary vision spring to life in a way that will be hard to surpass.

Bruce Hodges