The next release on CSO Resound is “Riccardo Muti Conducts Italian Masterworks,” a program of selections from Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni and Boito, recorded live in June 2017, with Muti leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The recording features liner notes from Phillip Huscher, program annotator for the CSO since 1987.

The Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana was on the second program the Chicago Symphony Orchestra ever played. That concert, in Rockford, a town some 90 miles northwest of Chicago, came just two days after the orchestra’s inaugural program in Chicago’s cavernous Auditorium Theater in October of 1891.

Less than a month later, when the touring Metropolitan Opera produced Mascagni’s year-old opera for the first time, Chicago’s orchestra — the Chicago Orchestra, as it was known then — was in the Auditorium pit. The orchestra played more than a dozen operas for the visiting Metropolitan troupe that month, and despite its natural home in symphonic music, the Chicago Symphony has often returned to operatic music over the years. Under its 10th music director, Riccardo Muti, the orchestra has inevitably focused on the cornerstones of the Italian repertoire. This recording, featuring music by Verdi, Boito and Puccini, along with Mascagni’s Intermezzo, surveys music spanning 50 years during the heyday of Italian opera in the 19th century.

“With Nabucco,” Verdi wrote, “my career can be said to have begun.” Nabucco was his third opera and his first big success. Coming quickly after the dispiriting failure of Un giorno di regno — when Verdi seriously considered giving up composition for good, before he had written a single work that would keep his name alive — Nabucco marked the turning point in his fortunes. The Overture to Nabucco was hastily written after the opera was finished, scarcely in time for the premiere. It is based on themes from the opera, including the big melody of “Va, pensiero” (the great chorus of the Hebrew slaves), which is never stated full out, but is instead previewed and glimpsed, in order not to spoil its ultimate effect in the opera. The overture resounds with the confidence and assurance of a composer who has found his voice.

“Gli arredi festivi,” the large opening chorus from Nabucco, shows how, even at the earliest stage in his career, Verdi could put his individual stamp on the traditional opera chorus. This is a carefully planned complex of contrasting sections that move toward a grand climax, as the Israelites pray for help in fighting Nabucco, the king of Babylon, while his army advances. Verdi begins with a powerful, thunderous chorus — a hint of the famous storm music that will open Otello 45 years later. Then, in music for unison basses over a brass chorale, the Levites call on the temple virgins to pray for deliverance; their reply is accompanied by harp and winds. The chorus ends with all the forces reunited in their powerful plea.

Throughout Verdi’s career, the patriotic chorus was one of his signature numbers. In 1847, before he had written a note of Macbeth, Verdi told his librettist to pay particular attention to the text for a chorus of Scottish exiles at the beginning of Act 4, which he said was the one moment of real pathos in the opera. When Verdi revised Macbeth for Paris in 1865, he decided to replace the original version of “Patria oppressa!” with the magnificent chorus we know today. This is a work of great originality, beginning with the unusual opening brass chorale over timpani rolls. Throughout, the harmony is bold and unorthodox, and the splendor and subtlety of the choral writing looks forward to the Requiem and the Four Sacred Pieces.

I vespri siciliani, written following Verdi’s great mid-century trio of Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata, is the work of the mature Verdi, a composer with an unrivaled sense of music and drama. Verdi’s grand opera — it was premiered in French in Paris in 1855, translated into Italian in 1861 and has since become better known as I vespri siciliani — deals with the French occupation of the island of Sicily during the 13th century, and the uprising by the people of Palermo on Easter Sunday 1282. The monumental overture is the last one Verdi composed according to the post-Rossini, sonata-form blueprint. Verdi begins with a slow introduction, haunted by premonitions of tragedy. The allegro that follows is characterized by his signature blend of high drama and soaring lyrical melody.

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In the six years between Verdi’s final operatic masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff, two new contenders to the throne emerged: Giacomo Puccini and Pietro Mascagni, who had been friends and roommates at the Milan Conservatory in the early 1880s. Mascagni drew attention first. His earliest completed opera, Cavalleria rusticana, was a phenomenal success at its premiere in Rome in 1890. The Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana does not represent a scene change or a shift in time, but instead converts all the opera’s pent-up passion into a necessary moment of repose. Its big singing melody, as famous as any in music, grows more insistent until a single repeated note seems to carry the weight of the entire tragedy. In the opera, the intermezzo marks the end of the Easter church service against which the story has been unfolding, but the underlying intensity suggests that the drama is far from over.

In 1893, with the premiere of Manon Lescaut, Puccini also became a new name to reckon with. Manon Lescaut was not his first opera — both its predecessors, Le villi and Edgar, had floundered at the box office — but it was his earliest great success, and the first in a series of his exceptionally popular stage works. The intermezzo — essentially a prelude to Act 3 — reveals Puccini’s gift for imbuing purely orchestral music with a sense of theater. This is music of movement and drama — it fills in a large gap in the story that occurs between Acts 2 and 3, beginning with Manon’s imprisonment for theft and her journey to Le Havre, where she is to be deported to America. With its dark mood — the brooding opening for solo strings is particularly haunting — and urgent melody, it is a masterpiece of implied action.

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Although Arrigo Boito is best known today as the brilliant librettist of Verdi’s last two operas, Otello and Falstaff, he was himself a highly accomplished composer. Boito was already composing an opera on the Faust legend when he met Verdi for the first time in 1862. Boito had originally planned to write two operas, Margherita and Elena, based on the two parts of Goethe’s poetic drama, which he himself was adapting as his text. But when he returned to the project in 1866, he decided to combine them into a single large-scale opera that he called Mefistofele — the tale seen from the point of view of Mephistopheles, the demonic character who drives the action, rather than Faust. Boito finished the score in 1867, but after the premiere at La Scala the next year, which was a historic fiasco — only the Prologue was well received — he revised the opera extensively. A new version of Mefistofele was finally staged at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna in 1875.

Long regarded as the high point of Boito’s composing career, the Prologue from Mefistofele has often been performed by itself. Toscanini chose it as the finale of the historic concert on May 11, 1946, that reopened the restored La Scala theater after the Second World War. The Prologue in Heaven — the title comes directly from Goethe — is all the more powerful for its dazzling unconventionality. Verdi was taken aback by Boito’s bold harmonic progressions, so unlike anything in his own music, particularly the magnificent sequence of discordant chords, resolving from one into another, that characterize long stretches of the Prologue. The Prologue is in four connected sections. In the opening scene, echoing trumpet calls accompany a chorus of angels singing in praise of God; their broad and noble theme, later repeated to great effect, anchors the entire Prologue. In the second part — a roguish, swaggering scherzo — Mefistofele appears and addresses God directly, wagering that he can win the soul of Faust. Speaking through a chorus mysticus, God accepts. Mefistofele vanishes as a chorus of cherubs begins a song of celestial joys. Finally, a grand complex of massed choruses — penitent women, cherubs, the heavenly host — resumes the song of praise, rising in waves to a dazzling climax.

Phillip Huscher is the program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

TOP:  A detail from an 1868 set design for the Prologue to Mefistofele. Museo Teatrale (La Scala), Milan. | Credit: De Agostini Picture Library/A Dagli Orti. Bridgeman Images