Muti, Chicagoans Dull The Edges In Italian Opera CD

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ITALIAN MASTERWORKS. Music by Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni, and Boito. Riccardo Zanellato, bass. Chicago Children’s Choir. Chicago Symphony Chorus. Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Riccardo Muti, conductor. CSO Resound CSOR 9011801. Total Time: 68:37.

DIGITAL REVIEW – Conductor Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra continue a musical tradition that has produced some excellent results over the years. I am not sure, however, that this new CD, taken from concerts recorded in June 2017, fits into that category.

Muti, who was music director of La Scala for 19 years, has had a distinguished history as an opera conductor, and all the music on this CD is from the operatic repertoire. But “masterworks”? Verdi’s Nabucco Overture is second-rate music by any standard, and the chorus “Gli Arredi Festivi” from the same opera is not much better. Surprisingly, for an album of popular favorites such as this one, Nabucco’s beloved “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” was not included. Admittedly, this music may have become overly familiar with constant repetition. Perhaps Muti himself has tired of it. The performance of the Nabucco Overture, like everything else on this CD, is conducted and played with authority and precision, but little else.

The Chicago Symphony Chorus sounds surprisingly sleepy and uninvolved in “Gli arredi festivi.” The performance of Verdi’s Overture to I Vespri Siciliani, a more substantial piece than the Nabucco Overture, sounds like a run-through on this CD, rather than what is billed as a “live” performance. And in “Patria oppressa” from Macbeth, the last Verdi item on this CD, I don’t sense much involvement from the members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus in their roles as Scottish refugees.

Arguably, the best music here is the Intermezzo from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. While the Chicago Symphony plays beautifully, especially the solo string players, Muti doesn’t bring much passion to this Puccini gem. The same could be said for the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.

Bass Riccardo Zanellato is featured in ‘Mefistofele.’

The major work is the Prologue from Boito’s opera Mefistofele, with a Muti favorite, bass Riccardo Zanellato, in the title role. Boito is best known today as the man who wrote the librettos for Verdi’s last two operas, Otello and Falstaff, but he also composed a great deal of music. His Mefistofele was premiered at La Scala in 1868 and has held at least a tenuous place in the repertoire ever since. The Metropolitan Opera revived it as recently as 2018. Most critics agree that the opera is too long, only intermittently engrossing, and that the Prologue contains the best music. But the finest feature of the Prologue is probably the huge volume of sound created by the combined forces of chorus, children’s chorus, organ, percussion, and offstage trumpets. Apart from the din, it is pretty conventional musically. While this new recording of the Prologue generates plenty of volume, Zanellato’s wide vibrato doesn’t do much for Mefistofele’s solos.

Although there is no mention in the CD booklet, the concerts on which this CD is based were dedicated to the memory of the Chicago-based Verdi scholar Philip Gossett (1941-2017), who had passed away just a few days before at the age of 75. Gossett was responsible for authoritative new editions of Verdi’s works and Muti has often paid tribute to his scholarship. Both Gossett and Muti deserve enormous credit for enabling contemporary audiences to hear Verdi’s music as he wrote it rather than in versions altered by generations of misguided editors and performers.

Thirty years ago Sir Georg Solti made a CD with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus for Decca (430 226) devoted to Verdi choruses, which included the Nabucco and Macbeth choruses featured in this new Muti CD as well as excerpts from other Verdi operas. That 1989 CD generated a lot more fire and intensity than does this new Muti release.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.ludwig-van.com (formerly musicaltoronto.org) and www.myscena.org.