A high point at La Scala, Muti gets Legion d’Honneur in Rome

ITALY — As foretold by their Italian travelogue program earlier this season, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra capped its 2024 with triumphant performances in the birthplace of its music director emeritus Riccardo Muti.

What a leg it was. As with most of its $3.5 million tour, which spanned seven countries and 11 cities in January, the orchestra sold out houses in Turin (Jan. 26), Milan (Jan. 27) and Rome (Jan. 29). Forget “whirlwind” — this tour has been a hurricane for the CSO, contending with a packed rep list and even more packed itinerary. But if this ensemble was ever fatigued, the musicians covered it impeccably in Milan and Rome. Those performances were not merely tour apexes. They were, to this critic’s ear, among the high points of Muti’s CSO tenure, full stop.

At the tour’s Rome finale, the orchestra mostly conquered the Teatro dell’Opera’s pitiable acoustics with a translucent account of Anatoly Liadov’s “Enchanted Lake.” By this point, too, their “Firebird” suite had reached full ripeness. The orchestra cohered across Muti’s many rubatos with an elasticity so precise it seemed clairvoyant.

After another “Aus Italien,” also heard in Vienna and Milan, Muti announced the evening’s encore as the overture from Verdi’s “Giovanna d’Arco” (Joan of Arc). He scanned the crowd for the “cardinale” from Chicago; Archbishop of Chicago Blase J. Cupich, in attendance, eventually waved from a box seat next to CSOA  board chair Mary Lou Gorno.

“You burned Gioanna d’Arco!” Muti teased him, switching from Italian to English. The house churned with laughter.

In the same comments, in one of the most emotional moments all tour, Muti recognized, then stepped off the podium to embrace, retiring cellist David Sanders. Appointed by former music director Sir Georg Solti, Sanders capped his 50-year tenure in the orchestra with the Teatro dell’Opera performance.

Is there any upper-society Italian threshold Riccardo Muti hasn’t stepped through? Yes, one: the Palazzo Farnese, built by the noble House of Farnese during the High Renaissance but owned by the French government since 1936.

As of Jan. 29, Muti, 82, can finally strike that spot off his bucket list. The morning of the CSO’s Teatro dell’Opera appearance, the beyond-grand palace hosted a closed ceremony awarding the conductor the title commandeur de la Légion d’honneur. The master of ceremonies was Martin Briens, France’s ambassador to Italy, who enumerated Muti’s many contributions to French opera and world culture. To Muti’s palpable delight, the ceremony was held in the Sala dei Fasti Farnese, the famed room where, per “Tosca’s” libretto, the title character stabbed Scarpia — an exquisite coincidence, given the centenary of Puccini’s death this year.

“Your contribution to the repertoire is exceptional. You have conducted the greatest of works, and brought the greatest ideas to life,” Briens said in his introduction.

Briens’ comments were followed by musical offerings from the CSO’s brass quintet: a fanfare from “La Péri,” from Frenchman Paul Dukas’ 1912 ballet about a man’s futile quest for immortality, and an arrangement of “Va pensiero” from Verdi’s “Nabucco.” In 2011, as part of a plea to the Italian government to reinstate arts funding, Muti invited the audience at the Teatro dell’Opera to sing along to the famous chorus as an encore — a treasured moment referenced in both Muti’s memoirs and Briens’ comments.

In his acceptance speech, Muti thanked the orchestra and the embassy, then seized the moment to petition the French government to repatriate the body of composer Luigi Cherubini. Muti asserted that Cherubini’s memory would be better honored in the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, where he was born and where an empty monument to him still stands, than in Paris’ Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, where Cherubini’s tomb is “abandoned” next to celebrity graves like Edith Piaf’s.

“Many years ago, we Italians succeeded in bringing the body of Rossini from France to Italy (also at Santa Croce)… I have tried for decades to bring the body of Cherubini to Florence, with three different presidents of the Italian Republic,” Muti told a squirming Briens. “Cherubini wanted to come back to his native Florence.”

Let’s see if fourth time’s the charm.

When Muti returned to Teatro alla Scala with the CSO in 2017, media from around the world descended on Milan. At the time, Muti had not returned to his former house since an acrimonious split in 2005, a breakup that paved the way for his CSO appointment. He has since led concerts there with the CSO — their engagement on Jan. 27 was the tour’s penultimate stop, and their third visit together — and the Vienna Philharmonic.

The Muti mystique still grips this city. The afternoon of the concert, some passersby stopped to gawk at the posters, tugging their companions to a halt and snapping photos. Those hoping to snap up tickets were out of luck: the performance had sold out in 24 hours. Trucks from Italian public broadcaster RAI flanked La Scala, ready to go, hours before the performance. After it, admirers clotted the house’s backstage corridors to greet the maestro, many of them A-listers. (Among them: the caped — and controversial — Italian pop star Morgan, formerly a judge on the country’s version of “X Factor.”)

When an orchestra is onstage rather than in the pit, La Scala is a far cry from the Musikverein in Vienna, a previously tour stop, where sound hangs in the air as though suspended momentarily in amber. Here and at Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, the sound dies all too quickly.

But when the orchestra in question is the CSO, sound never dies easily. At La Scala, the orchestra radiated warmth to compensate for the tough acoustic. Strings were in top form, their vibrato luxurious. Winds and brass — especially Prokofiev featurettes from trumpeter Esteban Batallán, once La Scala’s guest principal trumpet, and clarinetist Stephen Williamson, back onstage after falling ill in Vienna — lobbed solos that landed right in listeners’ laps.

After the bone-shaking blast ending the Prokofiev’s first movement, a woman on the orchestra level exclaimed something — some superlative “-issimo,” but it was tough to make out. A snake pit of hisses shushed her before she hit her last syllable.

The orchestra’s “Aus Italien” never sounded finer than it did at La Scala — not just by the CSO’s standards, but by any. There, Muti cinched up this long-winded tone poem into an exhilarating, potent drama.

Did the operatic setting give conductor and orchestra that extra nudge? The high stakes of the hot-and-cold relationship between Muti and La Scala? Or did this souvenir from Italy simply need to come home?

If you ask this correspondent, it was all of the above, and also none of it. More than anything, this once-in-a-lifetime performance was a mutual embrace between ensemble and their outgoing captain — a marvel of artistic respect and trust. Muti kicked up tempos in a few key spots, none more dramatically than the off-to-the-races start of the last movement. The blazing tempo felt like a friendly dare — betcha’ can’t follow me — knowing privately, of course, that the orchestra could, and would.

Before the concert, a La Scala spokesperson said he’d asked the maestro about encores, given the momentous occasion. “No,” Muti answered. Then, after a few seconds’ pause, “… Maybe.”

He more than changed his mind. Dramatically breaking with house tradition, Muti led the tour’s two encores back-to-back after the performance: the intermezzo from “Manon Lescaut” and the Overture to “Giovanna d’Arco,” playing the latter exactly 123 years to the day since Verdi’s death.

“(It’s) an opera that I didn’t conduct here, but you certainly know it,” Muti told a whooping audience in Italian. “We can’t leave La Scala, me and my musicians from the Chicago Symphony, without leaving a memory of Verdi.”

At curtain in both Milan and Rome, Muti did something one almost never sees from him, or most conductors: as the orchestra applauded for him, he applauded right back. Last June’s “Missa solemnis” and Concert for Chicago, as valedictory as they were, didn’t quite the loop on the Muti-Chicago partnership. These heart-filling performances did.

Two encores may deviate from convention at grand La Scala. But in deference to another — letting audiences out in a timely manner — Muti basked in the applause after “Giovanna d’Arco” for just a moment before giving his signature wave and zipping offstage. Ciao. Until next time.

This is the second of two stories covering the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2024 European concert tour; translation assistance was provided by Maria Domenica Di Benedetto of the University of L’Aquila. Previously, a report from the orchestra’s concerts at the Musikverein in Vienna, Austria. 

Hannah Edgar is a freelance critic.

The Rubin Institute for Music Criticism helps fund our classical music coverage. The Chicago Tribune maintains editorial control over assignments and content.

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