wed 28/02/2024

theartsdesk in Ravenna - Riccardo Muti passes on a lifetime's operatic wisdom | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Ravenna - Riccardo Muti passes on a lifetime's operatic wisdom

theartsdesk in Ravenna - Riccardo Muti passes on a lifetime's operatic wisdom

Three unforgettable evenings with the most experienced living exponent of Italian opera

Muti conducting the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra, soloists and chorus in the Act One finale of Verdi's 'Macbeth'Marco Borrelli

Does “the practice of opera singing in Italy” need help from UNESCO, which has newly inscribed it on the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”? Italian opera is surely immensely popular worldwide. But when it comes to practising the art properly, its greatest senior exponent, Riccardo Muti, powerfully argues that Verdi and Bellini, his most recent special projects in the city where he lives, Ravenna, need as much respect and care as Beethoven or Schubert.

Since 2004, the now 82-year-old Muti's long-term project for the future has centred around his Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra, a training ground not just for young Italian instrumentalists but also for budding conductors and a new generation of singers under the aegis of the Riccardo Muti Italian Opera Academy in Ravenna. It's a special luxury when Muti himself conducts the "Autumn Trilogy", and this year's, actually completed just before Christmas, promised to be exceptional: a novel and, it seemed to me, entirely successful way of presenting operas in concert that are often overloaded in production – Verdi's first great success, Nabucco, and Bellini's masterpiece Norma – followed by a Verdi gala that could have been a series of star turns but, like everything else, was underpinned by a seriousness and discipline from all concerned that allowed one to see and hear the mastery at work. Monica Conesa as NormaFor Muti never lets his players coast; there's no such thing as a generic "accompaniment" of the sort one often gets in Italian opera of the first half of the 19th century. Arpeggiating support is filled with life, quickened with ideal vibrato; every gesture – a string or woodwind trill, the special sonority of a brass ensemble (exceptionally rich, with the cimbasso, forerunner of the contrabass trombone, playing a conspicuous part in Norma) – filling every number with life and varying degrees of tension. The singers are allowed their head, of course, but only to serve dramatic tension. And what a breathtaking introduction we had to the new generation of Italian opera stars in the best sense. Leading them all had to be 27-year-old Cuban American soprano Monica Conesa (pictured above by Zani-Casado) – because either you can handle every aspect of Bellini's high priestess with a guilty secret, and the role is of pre-Wagnerian dimensions (no wonder the German loved this of all Italian operas), or you fail utterly. Conesa triumphed on every count.

The testing ground took place within one of the ingeniously programmed "Paths of Friendship" concerts in the main Ravenna Festival this July, touring to Jerash and Pompeii, when Conesa sang the ultimate in bel canto challenges, "Casta Diva". First you thought: this is a Callas impersonation, so uncannily alike in the steel of the recitative. Then you realised that technique, line and temperament could back up a range of colours to match La Divina, and still yield individual personality. My only reservation then concerned the odd amplification in the vast Palazzo Mauro de André, of stadium size. In the perfect scale of Ravenna's mid-19th century neoclassical Teatro Alighieri – named after Dante, the figure who vies with the greatest mosaics in the world to keep the city's name supreme in world heritage terms. it was all stupendously vivid. Scene from 'Norma'Besides, while no singer can get by with an indifferent "Casta Diva", Muti's teacher Antonino (not to be confused with Antonio) Votto asked of the soprano not if she could manage the famous aria but how dramatic and steady she could be in the hugely demanding Act 2 confrontation with Pollione, her fickle Roman lover, "In mia man alfin tu sei" ("at last you're in my hands"). After that the challenges just keep on coming. Conesa not only had the stamina, but made absolute distinction between authoritative (if deceptive) public utterance, limpid beauty and personal anguish. The tenor role of Pollione is in the shade, but the young Albanian Klodjan Kaçani was equally secure and vivid, dealing as well with the pronounced lower register as the relatively few high notes.

Adalgisa, the fellow priestess caught up in the love triangle, should, as Muti himself observed in the programme interview, be a soprano and not a mezzo, since she very often has to go as high as Norma. Last-minute replacement Paola Gardina, a Muti favourite for Mozart, steered clear of a top note or two but delivered with total dramatic integrity (Gardina pictured above with Conesa and the assembled forces by Zani-Casado). We also had a true, steady bass for Norma's father Oroveso in Vittorio De Campo. The excellent chorus for all three performances, from Piacenza's Teatro Communale, pulled out all the stops in conjunction with the youth orchestra's brass in warlike mode. Scene from NabuccoInevitably everyone was waiting to see how they'd manage in Nabucco's Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, and it was awe-inspiring: quiet to begin with, but intense and energised – the Muti authoritative touch again (scene pictured above by Zani-Casadio). As for the soloists, the big and (to me) unfamiliar voices kept coming: another soprano of freakish range – equally necessary – in Russian-trained Lidia Fridman, who started in contralto mode but, like Conesa, hit every top note spot-on, and kept the coloratura absolutely even too.

Abigaille, Nabucco's nominal eldest daughter, is a two-note role, either vengeful or (briefly) amorous for a love she can't have; I'd love to see her as Verdi's Lady Macbeth, and with baritone Serban Vasile, the hubristic and then abused father, as Macbeth. Let's face it, the dramaturgy of Nabucco is so lopsided; if Verdi had tackled the subject in full maturity, he'd surely have insisted on more of a role for the courageous, good daughter Fenena. The unbalanced spectacle here is vigorous enough to hold the attention throughout, but after Bellini's tragic focus, it was bound to seem diffuse.Scene from NabuccoHolding both together were the imaginative designs of the visual artist Svccy, articulating the essential conflicts with Roman busts in Norma and Babylonian versus Hebrew artefacts in Nabucco. Just stopping short of Terry Gilliamesque buffoonery as statues touched or came together, his Norma was especially riveting to watch. For the Verdi gala, we simply had a lovely image writ large of the old composer in his garden at Sant'Agata – these forces were travelling to his home territory of Busseto the next night. This meant the singers could come forward either side of Muti, rather than stand to left and right of the chorus, as they had in the operas, but without any problems of projection.

Some of their contributions were strikingly brief, but the suffering undertow was strong. Having given us terrific rhythmic tension in the Nabucco Overture, the young players projected focused tragedy in the best-known Sinfonia of them all, the fate-dominated one of La forza del destino, the keening minor wails further underlined in Leonora's "Pace, mio dio" from another compelling soprano on the verge of making it big, Armenian Juliana Grigoryan, and the Act 2 finale in which her pleas for sanctuary are accepted by a religious order.

Giovanni SalaVivid impact was achieved by two former proteges of the Ravenna projects: Rosa Feola, now living every Verdi role in the world's major houses, as the Trovatore Leonora and handling the limpid, fiendishly difficult upper reaches of "Arrigo! Ah, parli a un cuore" from I vespri Siciliani, and another effortless stylist, tenor Giovanni Sala (pictured right by Marco Borrelli), going straight to the heart of the matter in Manrico's "Ah, si, ben mio" and launching into the start of Part Two unaccompanied in Macduff's lament.

Dark followed by light justified the brief appearances of Isabel De Paoli in Azucena's "Stride la Vampa" and Elsa Balbo for an impassioned Otello "Ave Maria". The evening's baritone, Luca Micheletti, was at one with the tension and amplitude of Muti and the orchestra in Macbeth's reversal of fate, slightly less so in Iago's "Credo", where the orchestra had the edge in its focused force and leering (with an especially shocking cut-off at the word "morta").

Greatest of all, perhaps because of the nature of the towering aria, was bass Ildar Abdrazakov in perfect accord with the atmospheric perfection of Francesco Angelico's cello solo and the sombre colourings of Muti's orchestra for King Philip's "Ella giammai m'amo". This and the judgment-day shock of Macbeth's Act 1 finale were the ultimate cornerstones of an unusually powerful selection. Verdi gala n RavennaMuti may well have praised Verdi as the "daily bread" of the cultural world in his closing speech, but it was his attention to detail, his phrasing, the life in every bar so strongly urged in its articulation, that made these three evenings a pinnacle of what can be done with Italian opera. Kudos especially to the exquisitely shaped woodwind solos led by Chiari Picchi's singing flute. As for the future, Muti will conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in the opening event of next year's Ravenna Festival, and Verdi's Requiem in London at the start of the 2024-5 season. He deserves every honour.

Riccardo Muti explains why Italian opera must be treated seriously in this revealing slice of interview

Everything was underpinned by a seriousness and discipline from all concerned that allowed one to see and hear the mastery at work

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