On Friday and Saturday evening, at La Scala, Riccardo Muti made his return to the theatre he dominated for 19 seasons, after having been away for 12 years. He wasn't conducting the La Scala Philharmonic but his own Chicago Symphony Orchestra; he has been its Artistic Director since 2010.
Muti strode to the podium with cries of “Welcome back Maestro!” from the auditorium. He picked up a microphone, though not to comment on his return, but to dedicate the concert to those who have lost their lives during the recent earthquakes. The last big quakes were two days before the concert. There was a minute's silence.
Suitably, first on the programme was Catalani's Contemplazione, “…a sad and melancholy piece by a man who would be dead at 39”.
After the closing work – Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony – there was an ovation and, after five minutes of applause, Muti lifted his baton for an encore, the same piece he chose after his last concert in the theatre, with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2005:
In 1986, when my hair was still black, and rumours were going around that I dyed it, I began my wonderful years in this theatre with Nabucco. We'd now like to play the overture from that opera.
A standing ovation crowned the evening a true triumph.
The Corriere della sera newspaper asked Muti about his years at La Scala.
I have beautiful artistic memories of my time here at La Scala, though some of the memories of the human relationships are less happy.
There was a breakdown, of which many things have been written which are not true. I want to tell it all, one day, in a book to be published after I'm gone; I already have the title: Now, the Truth!
I deeply love this theatre. Toscanini resigned three times. And I've returned with a great orchestra.
Asked about modern practices in opera houses, he said:
I'm an old-fashioned conductor. I was taught, that to do an opera, at least 20 days of preparation with the piano were necessary, whereas nowadays it's all done at the last-minute.
Many directors have foolish, nonsensical ideas, and my job is to defend the music. So, I must either kill the director, or I must walk out.
He does have an idea for returning to La Scala however; an opera by the composer who opened his first programme on Friday evening:
I would like to do La Wally, but I would have to find the singers for it. If it were done at La Scala without an exceptional cast you'd never get away with it!
Boos and catcalls, however, were far from everyone's mind for Muti's ‘comeback' performances at La Scala.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.