NEW YORK (AP) — Without a stick of scenery on stage, Riccardo Muti waved his magic baton and turned a concert performance of Verdi's "Otello" into one of the great operatic experiences of recent years.
Muti, making his first Carnegie Hall appearance as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led his players, along with the orchestra's chorus and soloists, in a single performance Friday night of Verdi's late masterwork.
Arrayed on stage, these forces numbered more than 200 people (including 30 members of the Chicago Children's Chorus, who sang the serenade to Desdemona with lilting enthusiasm). But like a general commanding his army, Muti knew how to make them respond as one with the simplest gesture, whether a slashing movement of his outstretched hand to cut off a climax, or a gentle wave of his fingers to diminish the volume.
Muti knows exactly what he wants "Otello" to sound like, and his assuredness seems to inspire the players and singers. The mighty storm scene that opens the opera was turbulent and menacing, but there was also a rare clarity of detail that made the scoring seem almost transparent.
Some of his touches might be considered idiosyncratic. When Otello, deluded into thinking his wife is unfaithful, publicly humiliates her in Act 3, Verdi follows with a series of crashing chords that lead into a soprano solo. Muti slowed the tempo down so much in this progression that the orchestra seemed to be responding with cries of outrage.
For the ensemble that follows, Muti chose a version that's rarely heard, one that Verdi revised for a Paris production in 1894, seven years after the opera's premiere at La Scala. It lacks some of the melodic sweep of the original but has the advantage of allowing important lyrics, such as Iago's plans for concluding his plot, to be heard clearly.
Crucial to the evening's triumph were the two lead singers, Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello and Krassimira Stoyanova as Desdemona.
Despite the concert format, under Muti's coaxing both disappeared completely into their roles.
Antonenko, a Latvian tenor who has only recently taken on the punishing title role, shows every sign of becoming the great Otello of his generation. His big voice rises with ease over the thick orchestral textures, and the top notes hold no terror for him. More, he already sings the role with considerable subtlety, conveying tenderness in the love scene with Desdemona, raw fury in the vengeance duet with Iago and heart-breaking remorse in the final solo over his wife's body.
At the start of the evening, Antonenko was announced as suffering from a stomach ailment. He did look uncomfortable, grimacing and taking repeated sips of water, but it seemed to affect his singing little if at all.
Stoyanova, a soprano from Bulgaria with a sturdy lyric sound, was the perfect foil, radiating unquestioning love that slowly gave way to confusion and then despair. Her "Willow Song" in Act 4 was mesmerizing, especially the way she gave a slightly varied coloring to each mournful repetition of the word "Salce, salce, salce."
As Iago, veteran Italian baritone Carlo Guelfi held his own in his scenes with Otello, but his Drinking Song and Credo showed some wear and tear on his voice. Overall, there was more snarl than suavity in his sound.
In supporting roles, Juan Francisco Gatell, a light-voiced tenor from Argentina, made an appealing Cassio, and American bass-baritone Eric Owens intoned Lodovico's few lines with gravitas.
Muti, who missed much of his first season because of various ailments, concludes this Carnegie Hall stand with two orchestral concerts.
Chicago is lucky to have him back in good health — and New Yorkers are equally fortunate to be able to anticipate more memorable visits.