Riccardo Muti Returns to La Scala

La Scala, Milan, January 21, 2017—Riccardo Muti’s return to La Scala has been a long time coming. The opera house and its former music director parted on painful terms back in 2005. Thereafter he had conducted here only once: with the Vienna Philharmonic that same year. On this occasion the public turned up in droves to welcome him back. In fact, Muti’s two sold-out La Scala concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra were so eagerly anticipated that the box office decided to introduce named tickets, to prevent their circulation on the black market.

Striding emphatically onstage for this second concert, Muti was clearly up for the occasion; so much so that when he promptly launched Hindemith’s Konzertmusik for Brass and String Orchestra he seemed to catch even his players off guard. But, when the dust settled, the first-movement’s neoclassical counterpoint roared and glistened like a polished engine. The ardent playing of the brass section showed exactly why it is considered one of the world’s best.

The subsequent performance of Elgar’s In the South was similarly thrilling. English restraint was eschewed for an aural fireworks display, as Muti went in for exhilarating tempo shifts and highly charged climaxes. One descending scale in the trombones was so forthright it could have stripped paint.

Taken as a whole, this performance was the better of the CSO’s two Milan concerts. Balance issues of the previous evening had now been ironed out, and the orchestra seemed more comfortable with this particular program. In particular, Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which followed a muscular account of A Night on Bald Mountain, played to the orchestra’s strengths. Here we had atmosphere aplenty–the solo sax evoked a plaintive image of the lonely troubadour with lilting rhythms and sultry tone–and combined orchestral forces displayed great control in filigree movements like “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks” or “Tuileries”. The score’s dynamic markings were, if anything, exaggerated, providing a reading of high drama.

While officially the program ended here, the best for onstage entertainment was yet to come: the encore of the Overture to I vespri siciliani. Muti knows how to build tension through this music’s rollicking rhythms and sumptuous melodies, and, having performed all three of Verdi’s Shakespearian operas under Muti in Chicago, the CSO understands the idiom well.