Q. How do you get before Riccardo Muti?
A. Practice, practice, practice.
For Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth, which opens this weekend at Symphony Center, nearly three hundred people will come together under his baton; a chorus, an orchestra, and soloists who’ve collectively logged lifetimes in the practice room.
To perform a Verdi opera, chorus preparations begin weeks in advance. This will not be Chicago Symphony Chorus director Duain Wolfe’s first opera with the Italian maestro. “It helps,” he laughs. “There are fewer surprises.” Nevertheless, he puts the CSC through wild unorthodoxies, ensuring malleability when Mr. Muti takes over.
One chorister admits, “When Muti comes out for that first rehearsal, it’s terrifying—but it’s amazing. He’s incredible.” For the wide-eyed alertness that his presence commands, Maestro Muti seizes the reigns in a rather low-key fashion, barely conducting, but for a dip of the shoulder, or toss of the head. He listens for a few minutes, assessing his chorus before getting to work. The Maestro seems pleased; much of the music is already there, like a pencil sketch awaiting pigment.
From there Mr. Muti leads them beyond the faithful execution of notes, into the unbounded array of color in Verdi that so profoundly mirrors the human experience. In the first witches’ chorus, for example, there is a polish to the CSC sound that he doesn’t like, “You see staccato, marcato. These are not from the publisher, these are Verdi’s marks.” Maestro Muti sings the phrase to the women; his tone is pointed, and harsh. They respond in kind. The witches in Macbeth are not to be beautiful. The journey begins.
In the next scene the basses belt out, “Pro Macbetto…”
The Maestro stops them, “Loud then soft.” He sings it back to them, “Pro MacBetto…”
The atmosphere shifts, like a cloud covering the sun. Indeed, we learn the Thane of Cawdor is dead; the witches’ prophecy is fulfilled. Still, the Maestro stops them again—one wonders, “That was amazing. What more could he want?”
But Maestro explains, “You are not a symphony chorus, but an opera chorus. Sing what you feel. You are not an army, but an individual—again!”
“Pro MacBetto…” In an instant, the sound switches to 3-D.
With hundreds of operas under his belt, Riccardo Muti sculpts a performance with lightning efficiency. For this chorus-only rehearsal he provides continuity by singing the lines of the principal characters himself (including that of Lady Macbeth). Often he’ll sing to his chorus in the instant before an entrance, conveying the exact tone and affect, which they can echo. Their pencils take note, but the music continues. In this way he hones his concept with few interruptions. In fact, a violinist confided, “It’s almost all from the podium. When he stops us, it’s usually to crack a joke.” For all his intensity, it’s his bold sense of humor that seems to bring his musicians even deeper under his spell.
“Look at my face, and it will come naturally.”
—Riccardo Muti, training his chorus
Musicians learn quickly to trust Maestro Muti, and to produce the information coming at them from his podium. Italian baritone, Luca Salsi, who will sing the role of Macbeth loves every minute he’s singing for Mr. Muti, “He asks you with the eyes, with the face, with the hands; and you immediately know what he wants…I study a lot at home, the notes, the significance of the words—everything. He tells you something, and I think, ‘Why didn’t I see it?’…It’s so simple, he’s right.”
The chorus rehearsal turns to Act 4, when the Scots rise up against the tyrant Macbeth:
“Oppressed land of ours! You cannot have
the sweet name of mother
now that you have become a tomb
for your sons.”
Maestro Muti pauses, becoming reflective, “In this music, Verdi is making a statement about foreign domination.” In fact, at the time Verdi was composing Macbeth, Italians were heading for an uprising against Austrian rule—a pathos which Maestro Muti folds right back into the performance.
Over the course of the rehearsals, there are a number of impressions, snapshots of the man who has spent a lifetime with Verdi. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, because the Truth in Verdi is to be found right on the page, in the relationship between the notes and the text. Understanding the Italian master doesn’t come from some mystic oracle, but from intensive study of Verdi’s scores. At one point, Maestro stops the singers, “Many conductors make the mistake of cutting this. They think it’s funny. It’s not funny. The color is very dark” (in essence, it’s only funny if you conduct it that way).
Riccardo Muti challenges musicians to question their own understanding of the music, rather than to question the composer. Following Thursday’s run-through, which brought together chorus, orchestra and soloists, he confessed he had witnessed some laziness over the years, a lack of commitment in the performance of early Verdi. “It pains me…One note can contain a universe” in Verdi. Verdi demands total commitment; and so does Riccardo Muti.