Seeing Riccardo Muti conduct a complete opera is now a rare pleasure. It’s always been a pleasure, but in recent years the experience has become frustratingly infrequent. He conducted Verdi’s Aida at the Salzburg Festival in 2017 and Mozart’s Così fan tutte at Naples’s Teatro di San Carlo last fall in a production by his daughter, Chiara, that will be seen at the Vienna Staatsoper in May 2020.

But even at the Chicago Symphony, where he is finishing up his tenth year as music director, Muti has conducted only four operas, all by Verdi, all in concert, and all memorable performances: Otello (2011), Macbeth (2013), Falstaff (2016) and now Aida. As one of the most popular operas, Aida may seem like an odd choice for the concert treatment. As has been amply demonstrated, however (not least by Muti himself), when the orchestra is positioned onstage and the singers are freed from scenic responsibilities, new light can be shed on even a work one thought one knew backwards and forwards.

It helps, of course, when the interpretation is as scrupulously conceived as was Muti’s for Aida. He has repeatedly pointed out that despite the grandiosity of the Triumphal Scene and other moments, Aida is, at heart, a work notable for its intimacy. Putting this observation into practice did not, however, result in an Aida that was small-scaled, but rather one that stressed nuance and emotional subtlety without shortchanging its powerful musical eruptions.

As always, Muti set high musical standards for the singers. Aida, coming late in Verdi’s career, is not an opera in which singers show off by adding unwritten high notes (although in a 2017 Washington National Opera performance, the Aida reportedly interpolated a high E flat at the end of the Triumphal Scene—in imitation of a famous Maria Callas stunt during a Mexico City performance). Nowadays, singers have a tendency to hold on at length to climactic notes, whether or not they are especially high, and Muti was careful to rein in this tendency while allowing the singers appropriate latitude for display. At one point he signaled disapproval when applause started before the end of an aria.

The cast was similar to that which one might encounter on a good but not great night at a top-tier opera house. Krassimira Stoyanova’s lovely, silvery soprano was heard to fine, expressive effect in Aida’s music. She compellingly projected her character’s inner conflict, suffered as a result of her love for the Egyptian warrior Radames. Stoyanova made a persuasive and often exquisite case for Muti’s view about the opera’s intimacy, but there are some moments in which Aida needs to soar, and here one wanted a bigger sound. Francesco Meli offered a more musicianly Radames than one normally encounters. Tapered phrases contrasted nicely with his more robust and often exciting singing; the high B flat in “Celeste Aida,” which I have heard him sing softly, as written, went less well on June 21, the first of three performances in Orchestra Hall.

Anita Rachvelishvili is today’s reigning Amneris, and her voluminously voiced yet often subtle portrayal was as welcome as ever. Kiril Manolov sang unevenly as Amonasro. Two reliable singers, Ildar Abdrazakov and Eric Owens, were heard as Ramfis and the King of Egypt. Strangely, one’s impression of the singers may have been influenced by where one sat. From a seat on the right side of the first balcony, singers positioned to Muti’s left on stage (Stoyanova, Meli, Abdrazakov) seemed to project beautifully, while the voices of those on his right (Rachvelishvili, Manolov, Owens) seemed pointed in a different direction.

Muti ensured that musical details often missed were emphasized, but the opera’s big moments, abetted by the Chicago Symphony Chorus in top form, were also spectacular. Aida is the best known, homegrown Italian opera steeped in the tradition of Meyerbeerian French grand opera, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. (Ponchielli’s La Gioconda is another one.) I have never heard a more gripping account of the second scene of Act I, which, in an almost eerie way, captured the religious mysticism of the Egyptians’ invocation of divine favor in support of their cause. And through telling shifts in tempo or by giving key sonorities a special nudge, Muti made moments of the Triumphal Scene, for which clusters of “Egyptian” trumpets were stationed at either side of the stage, seem overwhelming.

Some of the greatest pleasures of the performance were orchestral, brought about both individually, through especially fine solo wind playing in crucial portions of the score, and collectively, through the overall sumptuousness of the orchestra’s sound. Audience members can count themselves lucky that the orchestra’s recent strike over pension benefits did not imperil performances of Aida, which once again demonstrated Muti’s preeminence today as a Verdi conductor.

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