Having a ball unmasking Verdi as Riccardo Muti leads a master class

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Buona sera!” called out Music Director Riccardo Muti to a Grainger Ballroom filled with Chicago Symphony Orchestra donors and special guests. “Welcome! And thank you for your generosity and attention to our opera Un ballo in maschera, which we will do at the end of the season.”

Billed as “An Evening with Maestro Muti Previewing Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera,” the Jan. 25 event was a master class with young singers spotlighting passages from that opera. After Otello, Macbeth, Falstaff and Aida, Un ballo will be the fifth Verdi opera that the CSO and Chorus have performed in concert during Muti’s tenure as music director.

“As you know, like my predecessors Barenboim and Solti, we believe in the importance of operas being played by symphony orchestras,” Muti said. “A symphony orchestra that only plays symphonies doesn’t have the flexibility and freedom that opera can teach musicians. But orchestras that only play operas have other problems because the freedom is too much! 

“[Many] have the attitude that Italian repertoire is an entertainment, a show. When they play Mozart, Wagner or Strauss, everything is in order.” Then, imitating a tenor singing the finale of “Nessun dorma!” from Puccini’s Turandot, Muti ascended vocally while singing “Vin-ce-rò! “Vin-ce-rò!” and hit the high A and held it for an exaggerated amount of time to great laughter. “But it is a trick, it is sappy.”

He moved on. “In harmony, we have the tonic,” Muti explained as he played a G major chord at the piano, followed by a D major chord. “That is the dominant. And the dominant has to resolve. It cannot remain as is. We have to put the foot down. Physically, we want to resolve to the tonic. In opera, when you go to the dominant chord, the more you hold that chord, the more tension results as to when it will resolve. It’s a trick, capito? The longer you hold that note, the more everyone in the audience feels adrenaline come out. It’s a tension suspended so that the resolution is like a relief, and then, of course, the audience is relieved and shouts, ‘bravo!’ 

“It’s a trick I hate because it makes Italian opera sound ridiculous. If you did this in Mozart, can you imagine? They would quickly discover where Mozart is buried!”

“When I did Un ballo in maschera for the first time, it was in Florence, in 1972. My first tenor was the great American tenor Richard Tucker. Fantastic. ... He had such a freshness to his voice, even though by then, he was in his 60s.” — Riccardo Muti

Muti then turned his attention to the opera in question, Un ballo in maschera, which he, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and guest vocalists, will perform in concert June 23, 25 and 28. “Un ballo in maschera is very special in the 27 operas of Verdi. In Parma, the city where as you know, the Festival Verdi goes on, it considers itself the city of Verdi. There is a club — a sort of Masonic club — called the Club of the 27. This is serious, now,” Muti said tongue-in-cheek, as laughter began to waft up. “It’s very, very difficult to be accepted [to this club]. First, you have to wait until one of the 27 dies, because if there is one more, it would be the Club of the 28. And Verdi wrote 27 operas, not 28!”

Members take on the name of an opera of Verdi, Muti explained. “I was accepted as an honorary member because I did some things for Verdi over my life,” he added, completely deadpan. “So they accepted me, they wanted to give me this honor. 

“They meet in this sort of cave. They are all dressed in black with a small light in the middle. It is like a funeral home. You have to give a handshake and greet all of them. ‘Buon giorno, Oberto.’ That was the name of Verdi’s first opera, so that was his name. ‘Buon giorno, Un Giorno di Regno,’ that was Verdi second opera, so that was his name. There was one who was Requiem. I said, ‘I am sorry, Requiem,’ ” as riotous laughter interrupted Muti, who, as deadpan as possible, slowly continued. “His name was Requiem. ‘I am very sorry, Requiem, but I am not giving you my hand!

“They sing ‘Va, pensiero,’ the famous chorus [of Nabucco],” said Muti, as he began singing it. “And they sing it in a very bad way. Verdi writes pianissimo because this is the chorus of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, no? So they should be thinking about their fatherland. They sing very loudly. They use a recording, but it is not [mine]. It is not my performance. So there was a moment of silence when I asked about this. The chief of the 27 — his name was Rigoletto — finally spoke up and said, ‘Maestro, we tried to sing to your CD. But your tempo was so slow that we always finished earlier.’ ”

Continuing in his wry manner, Muti said: “You know, you have to take aspects of our country [Italy] with a grain of ... something. It’s a great country, but there are some aspects that are definitely a little bit odd.”

Muti went over to the piano and started to play the quiet opening of Un ballo. “That’s just the beginning,” Muti commented, “but it is unusual for Verdi. Especially for that period. It was written in 1859 when Verdi was 46 years old. Verdi attempted to do King Lear, but he decided to do Un ballo in maschera instead, based on stories written by Eugène Scribe, the French writer who spoke about Gustav, King of Sweden, who was killed in the 18th century. 

“In that period, at that time, it was impossible to portray a king on the stage. It was forbidden. So they decided instead of a king, maybe a baron? Maybe a count? Maybe a duke? But not a king. The first version of Un ballo in maschera is about the King of Sweden, and his name is Gustavo. When the soprano is in love and sings, ‘Gustavo! Gustavo!’ Well, it doesn’t sound very good. Gustav is a name, of course: Gustav Mahler. But in the Italian language, Gustavo is also a verb. ‘Gustavo spaghetti,’ or ‘I enjoyed the spaghetti.’ So the king in the second version of the opera becomes the governor of Boston. And his name is” — long pause — “Riccardo! So that is one of the reasons that I [prefer] the second version. Don’t tell anyone! 

“When I did Un ballo in maschera for the first time, it was in Florence, in 1972. My first tenor was the great American tenor Richard Tucker. Fantastic. I was so excited to have the tenor who recorded the Verdi Requiem with Toscanini. He was such a wonderful person and a very sincere human being. Very properly dressed with his black hat, he arrived with his score and sang. At one point I said, ‘Mr. Tucker, you can hold this note even longer.’ He was coming from the school of Toscanini, which was very strict, you have to do exactly what is written. But not like some American critics who think that what is written means literally. Through the notes as written by the composer, you have to find the truth of the interpretation. That means coming through the way it is written.

“So I told him, expand a little bit more because for him, there was the possibility to show even more of his qualities. He stood up and said, ‘Grazie, Maestro.’ And I was so impressed with this tenor and his discipline. He had such a freshness to his voice, even though by then, he was in his 60s. He worked with me at the piano for one month. 

“When I did Otello at La Scala with Placido Domingo, my friend, he had already done 320 performances of Otello in the world. But then he worked with me for 25 days at La Scala. Not because I had fantastic ideas, but because he trusted my approach and wanted to learn with me. Twenty-five days. Preparing an opera used to be in the hands of the conductor. Now, unfortunately, opera has become the territory of stage directors. This is why I only do pure opera and not opera with directors because so often what they do is an abomination.”

Participating in a master class conducted this January by Riccardo Muti were tenor Mario Rojas, soprano Tasha Koontz and baritone Ricardo José Rivera. Rojas and Rivera are alumni of the Ryan Opera Center.

Muti then asked: “Are our singers ready?” Baritone Ricardo José Rivera, an alumnus of the Ryan Opera Center, made his way to the piano, played by Kay Kim. “Your name is Ricardo with one c, but  you are singing the role of Renato, not Riccardo, which is a tenor. Renato is the best friend of the governor Riccardo. Amelia is the wife of Renato. Riccardo is in love with Amelia, so the situation is a little tricky. He tells of his affection and his care. He wants to flirt. He loves her. Love with a capital L. But she is in the middle, because she also loves Riccardo, but she doesn’t want to betray Renato.” 

For his first aria, Rivera sang “Alla vita che t’arride,” from Act 1, Scene 1, to applause, but then all waited for Muti’s verdict out of the silence that followed. “You are very good. You will make a wonderful career, I promise you. What is the dynamic at the beginning?”

“Piano,” answered Rivera.

“Si!”

“I did try to sing it piano.” 

“You know, when a singer sings piano, the public does this,” said Muti, clapping very slowly. “But loud, ‘bravo!’ This is the way all of your colleagues sing. In my [EMI] recording of Un ballo in maschera, which you certainly have heard, who is the baritone?”

“Piero Cappuccilli,” responded Rivera.

“Bravo. One of our greatest baritones. We went in the control room, and because Piero was a very sensitive person, he started to cry listening to himself. He was a sensitive person. I said, ‘Piero, let’s go downstairs back with the orchestra. And,” Muti said with a pause, “Let’s try to put some expression in there.’ ”  The audience howled with laughter. 

Muti had Rivera sing the aria again, stopping him at every phrase and changing every detail, even the vowel sounds. “Ooo, not ahh. Can you hear the difference? It’s the same note, but it changes the color completely.” Turning back to the audience, Muti said, “Now you see why it takes a month!” 

Tenor Mario Rojas, another Ryan Center alum, sang the Act 2 duet “Oh, qual soave brivido” with soprano Tasha Koontz. “Your sound is beautiful. You will have a wonderful career,” responded Muti to Rojas. “Say the words without singing them. You are not singing to the audience, you are singing to her. You have to convince her. The Italian language is always legato. It’s like a river. You have to sing the way we speak. What is the dynamic?”

“It doesn’t say anything,” Rojas said.

“Buy a new edition. I will show you: It says pianissimo. Pianissimo is disappearing among singers, among choruses, among orchestras. Everything is mezzo forte. Remember one phrase of Toscanini: ‘The more piano you sing, the more you have to articulate the words. To sing pianissimo and with expression.’ 

“This is where Verdi speaks about himself, he was a man of amore, full of love. Amore, with a capital A. It’s almost the feeling of a Viennese waltz. ‘I ask God, I implore God. You ask me to have pity, but I ask God to have pity, because I was suffering.’ You have to give the impression to the public that this is a question mark. Not ‘I couldn’t stay without you,’ but ‘could I stay without you?” 

Then Muti turned to Koontz, who sang the role of Amelia in the duet. “That was beautiful,” he said. She also sang the role of the High Priestess in the Muti-led performances of Verdi’s Aida with the CSO in June 2019. 

“Maestro, said Rojas, “can I share a little something with you?”

“Si.”

“Since I started singing when I was 13, the people that I wanted to meet were Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and you. Also, we share the same birthday, July 28.” The audience applauded resoundingly. 

Muti then added: “You know, my friend, we are lucky, both of us. Because you know who was born on July 29th? Mussolini!” 

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