"My questions to Verdi would be if I did right," the 76-year-old conductor said. "And if he says that I was wrong, then I will die for a second time."
During a career that included music director tenures with the Philadelphia Orchestra (1980-92), Milan's Teatro alla Scala (1986-2005) and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (since 2010), and principal conductor posts with Italy's Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (1968-80) and London's Philharmonia Orchestra (1972-82), Muti established himself as a perfectionist and purist. He insists on "come scritto," that compositions be performed "as written" without interpolated high notes intended to thrill audiences.
"I've been fighting all my life against all the bad habits about the Verdi interpretation, interpolations, transpositions, cuts, high notes that he didn't write," he said last weekend. "I made and am still making a war against all these habits."
He refused to allow tenors Alfredo Kraus and Salvatore Licitra to sing a high C to end "Di quella pira (Of that pyre)" in "Il Trovatore," which he called "that note that belongs to a circus and not to the opera."
Muti made one exception: the 1990 return to La Scala of "La Traviata." The audience had booed conductor Herbert von Karajan and soprano Mirella Freni when the middle Verdi masterpiece was staged in 1964 - its first appearance there since Maria Callas' performances in 1956. Muti hired a young cast led by 31-year-old soprano Tiziana Fabbricini and 26-year-old tenor Roberto Alagna.
"During the rehearsals she sang for me an E flat, the famous E flat at the end of the cabaletta, the finale of the first act, and I was very impressed because she had a fantastic round, full E flat, not just like a mosquito. I said you keep for the future," he recalled. "Before the performance, I don't know why, a voice came to me and said Riccardo, just in case, remember that you have a weapon."
He had worked out a signal with Fabbricini: If he nodded during "Sempre libera (Forever free)," she should take the unwritten high note.
"But you have to be sure, because if you crack the note, then they will burn the theater," he told her.
"So I started the opera, the atmosphere was like in North Pole. Icy," he went on. "So I said Riccardo, forget all your love for Verdi, your philology, your ethical approach, artistic approach. Verdi will forgive you. I kept thinking shame on you Riccardo, but in case of war everything is possible. She sang the E flat and the theater exploded. ... But I thought is it possible that a triumph comes through one note? That is exactly what I've been fighting all my life. But that was an exception, and it remains an exception."
After agreeing to extend his contract with Chicago through 2021-22, Muti is taking the ensemble on a U.S. East Coast tour this month. He is saddened by allegations of sexual misconduct that have sidelined fellow conductors James Levine and Charles Dutoit. After framing his remarks by saying he doesn't have firsthand knowledge of the facts, he says any abuse must be condemned.
"The Romans used to say 'dura lex, sed lex' - it's a very hard law, but it's the law," he explained. "But I'm sad because these are two colleagues that I respected very much as musicians and AS musicians I still respect them."
He keeps a busy guest-conducting schedule. And three years ago he founded the Riccardo Muti Italian Opera Academy in Ravenna, where he lives, to teach young conductors.
"As (Arturo) Toscanini said, every donkey can beat time, but to make music, it's another thing," he declared.
With a few exceptions, Muti thinks young conductors fail to study a string instrument or piano sufficiently.
"They want to have success immediately," he said. "Because conductors don't have the authority and the knowledge to prepare a group of singers dramatically, not only musically, now the stage directors have become extremely important to the point that they many times invent a story that has nothing to do with the opera itself, also because many of them, they are ignorant about music."
For instance, he cites the 2010 Pierre Audi production of Verdi's "Attila" he led at New York's Metropolitan Opera, with sets by the architect firm Herzog & de Meuron.
"That was not avant-garde. It was bad," he said. "That was terrible."
He laughs repeatedly when discussing Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, talks about the double entendres with sexual references he discovered in their trilogy of operas, and says there are likely many that he missed.
"Two little pigs," he says of their raunchiness with a twinkle in his eye.
He also has learned to laugh about the "Traviata" performance at La Scala on April 7, 1992, when an alarm clock hidden in the podium went off in the third act, ending the night prematurely.
"To lift the podium in La Scala - that is extremely heavy, so you need at least four people," he said. "It must have been certainly from somebody in the theater, not the musicians, not the chorus. I don't know - some workers. It remains a mystery, and it's better that it remains like that."
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