An engraving of Giuseppe Verdi conducting Aida in Paris in 1880. | Source: Wikimedia

Ahead of the concert performances of Aida by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on June 21, 23 and 25, Riccardo Muti speaks with program annotator Phillip Huscher about this opera and his devotion to the music of Giuseppe Verdi.

PHILLIP HUSCHER: Your personal history with Aida goes back to your childhood, perhaps even before your first memories.

RICCARDO MUTI: I lived in Molfetta, 25 kilometers north of Bari. My father, who was a medical doctor, had a fantastic tenor voice, and he loved opera very much. In Bari, there is a theater called Teatro Petruzzelli. My father wanted to hear Aida there, but they didn’t know where to leave their little boy — I was 3 years old — so they asked the driver to hold [me] during the performance. The driver was sitting in the last row of the theater, and I was in his arms. Apparently, for the entire opera, I never cried or gave signs of being uncomfortable. So that was the first time I heard Aida, but I don’t remember what kind of performance it was!

Riccardo Muti’s 1974 recording of Verdi’s Aida won the Grand Prix du Disque, the French equivalent of a Grammy Award.

PH: You conducted Aida for the first time at the Vienna Staatsoper in 1973 — some 30 years later — and you made a historic recording in 1974. You returned to Aida in Salzburg in the summer of 2017, and now you lead it in Chicago. Over these many decades, has your understanding of Aida changed in any significant way?

RM: When I conducted Aida in 1973, it was at the beginning of my career, and my Verdi was much more matter-of-fact. Then I did many other operas of Verdi — not only early Verdi — Nabucco, Attila, Macbeth, I due Foscari, Simon Boccanegra — but late Verdi — Don Carlos, Otello, Falstaff. Returning to Aida after conducting so many Verdi operas, you approach it in a different way. You know more about the process throughout Verdi’s entire life as a composer, and you realize that what is in Aida — the structure, the harmonies, the dramatic concept — is already there in the first operas. In the recent performances of Aida in Salzburg, I paid more attention to the fact that Aida is not just an opera of triumph. It is one of Verdi’s most refined scores. Most of the time, it’s chamber music: many times there is just one person on stage — Aida alone, Radamès alone — or two, Aida and Amneris — or three. It is a very intimate opera.

The instrumentation is very sophisticated, very delicate, and most of the time the dialogue between the singers should be intimate — not like you are in a big square telling everybody your personal problems. But it is generally played in a heavy way, because when people think of Aida, they think of the Arena di Verona, with elephants and lions in cages. And Amonasro, the father of Aida, comes out dressed like Tarzan, as a sort of slave, when in fact, the Ethiopians were a cultivated people. There are some clichés in this opera that are very difficult to eliminate.

Shirin Neshat

PH: Isn’t this a problem for stage directors today?

The front cover for the score of Aida, published by Ricordi in 1871. | Wikimedia

RM: I did Aida in Salzburg with Shirin Neshat, a great and very famous lady. She was born in Iran — she has since left — and she did a lot to help the situation of women in Iran. So I thought of her for this opera, considering the situation of Aida before Amneris — Amneris the daughter of the pharaoh and Aida the slave — even if she’s the daughter of the king of Ethiopia, she’s treated like many women today are treated in that world. In this respect, the relationship between Aida and Amneris becomes an actual problem of today.

PH: What will the Chicago Symphony Orchestra bring to Aida?

RM: I consider the Chicago Symphony today one of the best, if not the best, Verdi orchestra. We have done a lot of Verdi together — Macbeth, Otello, Falstaff, the Requiem — so the orchestra has approached this composer without bad traditions — the bad habits that affect even many of the important orchestras in important theaters. Of course, this is a war that has been going on since I started to conduct, and it will continue until the end of my life.

PH: Of all the opera composers you have performed in your career, which now spans more than 50 years, why is it that Verdi speaks to you the most profoundly?

RM: Because he speaks to us — about us. Like Mozart. I always stress the relationship between Verdi and Mozart. They speak about our defects, our love, our jealousy — all the human aspects. I have repeated many times the words spoken by Gabriele d’Annunzio, the great Italian poet, when Verdi died: “Diede una voce alle speranze e ai lutti. Pianse ed amò per tutti.” (“He gave a voice to all our hopes and sorrows. He cried and he loved for all of us.”) This is Verdi.

TOP: Riccardo Muti (center) joins the cast of Aida, including Francesco Meli, Anna Netrebko and Luca Salsi, for bows at the 2017 Salzburg Festival. | Photo: ©Franz Neumayr/Salzburg Festival