Riccardo Muti has conducted few operas in staged productions since his departure from Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera in 2014. That’s one reason why his concert performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra have attracted widespread interest. In October, however, he was at the helm for an opera in a major opera house, conducting Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Italy.

When Muti left Teatro dell’Opera, where he was active for six years and became “honorary conductor for life,” he said in a statement that the theater, then plagued by financial problems and strained labor relations, did not “guarantee the serenity I need to ensure the success of the performances.” In the years since, serenity has become ever more difficult to come by in the operatic world, a situation aggravated, as Muti sees it, by the accumulation of power by modern directors, who produce operas with radical interpretations that willfully misrepresent their dramatic essence. Muti, who turned eighty-two in July, conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in concerts every year at the Salzburg Festival, but has led only one opera there in the past dozen years, Aida in 2017.

Riccardo Muti conducting Don Giovanni at Palermo’s Teatro dell’Opera. Photo courtesy of Teatro Massimo.

This Don Giovanni was the product of what looks like a highly congenial partnership with the director—his daughter, Chiara. A student of the legendary Giorgio Strehler at Milan’s Piccolo Teatro school, Chiara Muti has had an active career as an actress and director of stage and cinema. Following her first operatic staging in Ravenna, she worked with her father on productions in Rome, including Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide. In 2018 the two collaborated on a much-praised Così fan tutte seen in Naples and, after the pandemic, in Turin, where their new production of Don Giovanni premiered last year. Chiara has worked with a number of other conductors and in March will make her La Scala debut with Rossini’s French grand opera Guillaume Tell.

Given her father’s pronounced views on radical stagings, one might predict Chiara’s productions to take a conservative slant. Yet her concept-oriented Don Giovanni has a distinct point of view. For her, the master seducer is the energizing force behind the other characters. He provides their very raison d’être. She emphasizes this in a less-than-subtle way by having costumes drop down from above for characters to step into, after first stripping to their not-very-attractive underwear. (Tommaso Lagattolla designed the costumes.) When Don Ottavio orders the servants to take away the body of his beloved Donna Anna’s father, all that is left of the old man is his coat.

A scene from Don Giovanni at Palermo’s Teatro dello’Opera. Photo courtesy of Teatro Massimo.

Chiara pursues the point determinedly. After Giovanni is dispatched to hell, the remaining characters remove their costumes (more underwear) and sing the final bars of the Epilogue while making puppetlike gestures. The action is sometimes busier than it needs to be, yet the story unfolds clearly and without undue distraction. Alessandro Camera’s sets, however, consisting mainly of a large and rather drab platform-like structure and hazy recreations of an Italian Renaissance building, leave much to the imagination. At times, when the stage picture consisted simply of the platform against a background of a single color, it reminded me of a production in the Wieland Wagner tradition.

A scene from Don Giovanni at Palermo’s Teatro dello’Opera. Photo courtesy of Teatro Massimo.

The production afforded the rare pleasure of witnessing a Mozart opera buffa sung by an almost entirely Italian cast. Luca Micheletti headed the singers with distinction, contributing a Giovanni that was suave and dashing but also menacing—not one to tangle with. His dark, resonant voice served the music handsomely, and his singing of the Serenade, as well as his entreaties in the duet with Zerlina, had considerable seductive appeal. Alessandro Luongo’s lighter voice made for an appealing vocal contrast in the role of Leporello, and Luongo played the servant with a nimble comic touch. The three women—Maria Grazia Schiavo (Donna Anna), Mariangela Sicilia (Donna Elvira), and Francesca Di Sauro (Zerlina)—proved themselves worthy of Giovanni’s interest, and Giovanni Sala sang Don Ottavio’s gorgeous arias with lyrical poise.

But, as expected, it was Riccardo’s show. It wouldn’t do to liken his reading either to a modern instrument performance or one associated with period instruments. Better to say simply that he prized fluency and refinement, shapely phrasing and well-balanced textures. With these elements in place, he confidently addressed the opera’s drama, especially its demotic side. An obvious inspiration to the singers, he had the instrumentalists with him as well. The Teatro Massimo orchestra shone.

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