Old-School Muti Touches Poignant Heart Of ‘Falstaff’

'Falstaff' is the third Verdi opera that music director Riccardo Muti has done in concert with the Chicago Symphony. (Rehearsal and performance photos by Todd Rosenberg)
‘Falstaff’ is the third Verdi opera that music director Riccardo Muti has presented with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
(Rehearsal and performance photos by Todd Rosenberg)
By Nancy Malitz

CHICAGO – In the week leading up to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on April 23, music director Riccardo Muti and his assembled Chicago Symphony forces were preparing their own mash-up of the character of Sir John Falstaff — the delightfully conceited, noble-bellied philosopher of several Shakespeare plays.

Ambrogio Maestri
Ambrogio Maestri starred as the rascal Sir John Falstaff, in pursuit of money and love.

The work was Falstaff, the sublime comic opera of Verdi’s late years, with librettist Arrigo Boito, based on the escapades of the ravenous swindler in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV. Baritone Ambrogio Maestri starred as the rascally knight errant with baritone Luca Salsi as Ford, the jealous husband whose wife and cashbox Falstaff has targeted (doubtless in reverse order). The opera was presented in Muti’s preferred manner of late — in concert, with the singers arrayed alongside and the orchestra and chorus before him, captions overhead, and no stage director on the premises.

Baritones: Luca Salsi, as jealous Ford, tests Maestri's Falstaff. PERFORMERS Chicago Symphony Orchestra Riccardo Muti conductor Ambrogio Maestri baritone (Sir John Falstaff) Eleonora Buratto soprano (Alice Ford) Luca Salsi baritone (Ford) Rosa Feola soprano (Nannetta) Saimir Pirgu tenor (Fenton) Daniela Barcellona mezzo-soprano (Mistress Quickly) Laura Polverelli mezzo-soprano (Meg Page) Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani tenor (Bardolfo) Luca Dall'Amico bass (Pistola) Saverio Fiore tenor (Dr. Caius) Chicago Symphony Chorus Duain Wolfe chorus director © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016
Baritones: Luca Salsi, as jealous Ford, tests Maestri’s Falstaff.

As he did with Otello in 2011 and Macbeth in 2013, Muti achieved results both galvanizing and very finely grained, his restrained powerhouse of huge orchestral and choral forces focused on the precise meaning of each word and often the subtext of its setting.

The singers assembled for Falstaff had all worked with Muti before and came ready for old-school grounding. “When you prepare a role with Muti, you never forget it,” said Salsi in 2013 when he sang Macbeth in Chicago. (The proof in that pudding came in 2015 when Salsi, on 30 minutes notice, stepped into Ernani’s Carlo, another Muti-prepared role, at the Metropolitan Opera.)

4/19/16 3:48:06 PM -- Chicago Symphony Orchestra Maestro Riccardo Muti Conductor Falstaff Rehearsal © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016
Maestri studied the role of Falstaff with Muti for a year as his career was beginning.

For his part, Maestri learned Falstaff with Muti 15 years ago in preparation for La Scala and Bussetto. “He taught me that the words are everything,” Maestri said. “We started with the fugal finale, and then the duet with Alice. The first time we did it, the audience screamed ‘bis, bis! (encore, encore!)’.”

The performance run of Falstaff continues through April 26. A recording of the 2011 Otello starring Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello, Krassimira Stoyanova as Desdemona, and Carlo Guelfi as Iago is available on the CSO’s house label, CSO Resound.

Maestri is now the world’s reigning Falstaff, subtle and crafty, with a grandiose physique, a splendid, supple voice, and natural wit. By his own reckoning, he has sung the role in nearly every opera capital and in nearly every existing production. His interpretation was dappled with sadness in a vivid psychological portrait of the aging knight’s self-deception and cynical scheming.

CSO Music Director Riccardo Muit and baritone Ambrogio Maestri
Humiliated Falstaff, self-medicating with sweet wine, unbuttons his waistcoat.

Maestri was surprisingly endearing in Falstaff’s third-act monologue of self-medicating consolation, after his drubbing at the hand of the merry wives. This grandly humiliated knight, who had been dumped into the Thames, unbuttoned his vest and allowed the sweet wine to warm his spirits in the sun. Clearly, Maestri’s Falstaff still had a few good moves left in him.

As Mozartian as the opera is overall, Falstaff gets downright expressionistic in the portrayal of the confounded Ford, who learns that his wife has invited Falstaff into their own home and assumes the worst. There’s a powerful virility to Salsi’s voice, strong throughout its range, that was terrific for Ford. His anger seemed spontaneous. The stunned husband was disbelieving at first: “È sogno o realtà?” (Is this a dream, or reality?). Then fulmination overtook the man, who spit oaths and imagined sprouting horns as he took in the insult to his honor and his bed.

Soprano Eleonora Buratto as Alice, mezzo-soprano Daniella Barcellona as Quickly.
Alice (Eleonora Buratto) and Quickly (Daniella Barcellona) prepare revenge.

Serves Ford right, though, for testing his wife in the first place. “Così fan tutte,” one might want to caution. For their part, soprano Eleonora Buratto as Alice Ford and mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona as the “fixer” Mrs. Quickly proved willful adversaries in the game of love, smart and charming singers both.

Utterly transfixing were soprano Rosa Feola as Nannetta Ford and tenor Saimur Pirgu as Fenton, the sweet teenage lovers who are as determined to marry as Ford is to foil them. There can be no doubt of the outcome. Verdi did not waste that soaring, heavenly melody on sweethearts who were doomed.

Minor hip surgery sidelined Muti in mid-February after the Chicago Symphony’s tour of Taiwan, Japan, China, and South Korea. But he looked lithe and rested in his April visit, despite a killer schedule that wove the three evening performances of Falstaff among five concerts featuring Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. Feola, the Nannetta, sang the innocent pastoral verses in the Mahler finale, “Das Himmlische Leben” (Heavenly Life, where the angels bake the bread and wine costs not a farthing). To hear her sing it was to realize that Muti programmed it specifically to make the best use of that celestial voice.

Muti and Pau Gasol.
Chicago Bulls’ Pau Gasol stands tall for Muti, and Verdi.

Muti invited many guests to the final rehearsal, among them Pau Gasol, the opera-loving basketball dynamo who anchors the Chicago Bulls, and colleagues in the arts world. A recent newspaper column, noting that Gasol might be headed for a split with the team in free agency, actually cited Pau’s love for opera as a reason the marquee player might decide to stay in Chicago. During a rehearsal break, Muti posed for a few shots with the player, and then launched into a complaint about today’s Regie-driven approach in most major opera houses — and what it’s costing the art form.

Although Muti said he is planning an Aida with Anna Netrebko at the Salzburg Festival in 2017, he expects to stick to the concert format for the foreseeable future, following too many so-so experiences with Regie-dominated productions in recent decades, including at the Salzburg Festival (La Clemenza di Tito, Otello) and the Met (Attila).

Whether one agrees with Muti’s attitude toward the current generation of opera directors, it’s clear that the opera he produces in concert with the full forces of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus achieves a level of musical clarity and polish that is not readily discovered in any opera house. The sound is grand but never forced, always cantabile, with a seemingly effortless light touch when the occasion warrants. This Falstaff often sounded as if the orchestra was the personage of the composer himself, listening in, savoring the jokes and repeating them, chuckling, echoing, playing with favorite motifs and actors’ lines.

Rosa Feola, as Nannetta.
Celestial voice: soprano Rosa Feola.

Muti’s Verdi may be old school. But it already seems rare, and by its rarity new. Muti does not see that as a hopeful sign, though. He can claim a direct line through his teacher Antonino Votto, who had worked with Arturo Toscanini during his years at La Scala, to Verdi, who was notoriously exacting.

“It doesn’t mean I have the truth in my pocket,” he insisted at his hotel after the first performance. “But I have a certain tradition that has disappeared.”

Even talented young conductors, Muti said, “don’t know anything of the tradition in the good sense of the word — how to prepare an opera where the conductor is at the center, with the first stage direction coming from the music and the second from the stage director.”

The idea of the conductor taking charge of all the weeks of rehearsals is “gone completely,” Muti said. Now it’s more like “40 days to the stage director, and the conductor gets three hours to read two acts of an opera.”

The venerable maestro might be echoing Falstaff’s lament: “Tutto declina.”

Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today, and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.