Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony in Otello.
Photo by Tim Rosenberg © 2011 Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Friday night also marked the conductor's triumphant New York return. Maestro Muti has had a rough 2010-2011 season, with health problems hindering the start of his tenure as the CSO's new music director. For their part, the orchestra responded brilliantly to his direction, with a muscular reading of the score that hummed with power and flexibility, from the fortissimo chords that kick off the storm scene to the haunted bass figures that presage the murder of Desdemona.
Over four acts, Maestro Muti led his audience down the emotional rabbit hole of Otello's decline. He was helped by a strong young cast, anchored by Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko in the difficult title role. Mr. Antonenko has sung this role under the Muti baton in Salzburg and Chicago. He has the right voice for this part, a dark-tinged, baritonal instrument that can rise up, find its volume and upper pitch, then slice heroically through a Verdi orchestra raging at full blast. He was especially chilling in the long Act III aria that follows Otello's degradation of Desdemona before the court, and the murder-suicide that ends the opera.
He was well matched with Krassimira Stoyanova, a picture of despair, emotional confusion, and more despair as Desdemona. Ms. Stoyanova brought warmth to the Act I love duet, creating the illusion of a perfect marriage before its methodical destruction. She sounded fresh and innocent in the Act II garden scene, interacting smoothly with a children's chorus and the men of the CSO Chorus. Her bewilderment in the third act, and resignation in the fourth felt entirely realistic, culminating in a Willow Song and Ave Maria that wrenched the heart.
Orchestrating events was Carlo Guelfi, a snide Iago whose chief quality was his eloquence of manner in his dirty dealings with the rest of the cast. Mr. Guelfi got off to a good start in Act I with a compelling Brindisi with Cassio (sung by the lyric tenor Juan Francisco Gatell.) He then poured everything he had into the Act II Credo: Iago's big aria where he tells the audience what an evil badass he is. However, his vocal level declined slightly over the course of the evening, failing to dominate the big ensembles of Act III. This was a competent performance, but not a great one.
The Chicago Symphony Chorus were one of the stars of the evening, forging the chain of "hit" choruses that raise the curtain on Act I into a cohesive whole. Whether they were singing about shipwrecks, victory, bonfires or the joys of wine, these singers lent a mighty voice, matching the orchestra in volume and power, creating tight sonic structures that struck the audience with the force of a raging maelstrom. Under Maestro Muti, the first and third acts were thrilling, but credit must also be share with chorus director Duain Wolfe.