Muti presides over a glorious “Aida” concert

Riccardo Muti, music director of the CSO, closes out the season with a concert performance of Verdi’s “Aida.”. (Photos courtesy of Todd Rosenberg)

By M.L. Rantala
Music critic

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra closes its season with three concert performances of “Aida,” the final one on Tuesday evening. Weeks before, I already had heard from Hyde Parkers that it was impossible to get a ticket. Riccardo Muti, music director of the CSO, is renowned for his interpretations of Verdi, so it was no surprise that tickets sold out quickly.

I attended the middle of the three performances, which took place Sunday afternoon. Symphony Center was buzzing with anticipation, as concert-goers lingered over an afternoon wine or coffee before the program started. I was charmed to be given an attractively designed libretto along with my program.

“Aida” is the story of two ancient warring kings—one from Egypt, the other from Ethiopia. The latter’s daughter, Aida, is been captured and forced to act as a servant to Amneris, daughter of the Egyptian king. Both women are in love with the same man, the Egyptian general Radames.

The heroic general loves Aida, but war forces the lovers into an impossible situation, leading to a death sentence for Radames after he is found guilty of treason. Entombed alive, he discovers that Aida has chosen to follow him in death, and they spend their last moments together in loving embrace, anticipating the glory of the afterlife.

The majestic sweep of the story gives it the power of an epic, and Verdi’s music has huge range, including a famous, muscular march as well as intimate declarations of love. The stage was stuffed with musicians and over 130 members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Muti and his forces did not disappoint; it was a glorious “Aida,” a marvelous way to end the 128th season of the CSO.

Mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili makes her CSO debut as Amneris in Verdi’s “Aida.”
Amneris, the daughter of privilege and of the King of Egypt is the main villain of the piece. She wants Radames for herself and will forgive the general if only he will reject Aida. Mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili stole the show with a searing account of both tender love and blazing jealousy. It is the latter with which Amneris is usually associated, and Rachvelishvili is superb here, with her oaky mezzo full of brilliantly controlled fire and fury. But she was also deliciously sweet and romantic in her expressions of love, creating a woman of complexity. Her phrasing was sensitive and alluring and the character’s convictions and insecurities were clearly drawn. It was a stupendous performance.

Tenor Francesco Meli offered suave and attractive singing as the hero Radames. His top notes had ringing clarity as well as conviction. He offered us an intriguing picture of a simple military man who is caught up in political intrigue all because he has fallen in love with the wrong woman. His shock at his own betrayal of Egypt is convincingly portrayed, as is his complete devotion to Aida.

Soprano Krassimira Stoyanova was cast as the title character, and she sang the first performance Friday night. But just before the Sunday matinee began, we learned that she was indisposed and her substitute, called in at short notice, was Cuban American soprano Elaine Alvarez. Her program insert bio listed at the very top her performance as Mimi in “La Bohème” at Lyric Opera in 2007. Consulting my notes, I find that interestingly enough, on that occasion, too, she was called in as a last-minute replacement.

Alvarez struggled from time to time, and she seemed nearly throughout to be singing directly to Muti and no one else. Even though she stood right next to Meli, she mostly ignored him, even though he had the role of her lover. Early on she had a problem with timing, but quickly regained her equilibrium. Employing shouty singing as a substitute for intensity was not the right approach, but she soldiered on and often found the emotional center of her character.

The cast included splendid singers in the secondary roles. Bass Ildar Abdrzakov was a powerful Ramfis, the chief of the Egyptian priests. His rumbling low notes were gripping, and he exuded authority.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens offered an authoritative account of the King of Egypt while baritone Kiril Manolov was convincing as Amonasro, the King of Ethiopia and the father of Aida. Soprano Tasha Koontz and tenor Issachah Savage both did fine work in the small roles of the High Priestess and the Messenger.

Muti drew resplendent sound from the orchestra. From the beginning, Muti used the music to paint a portrait on a large canvass. The opening violins in the Prelude had a quiet sadness, like tears, and this gave way to glints of brightness and hope, aptly setting the stage for the story.

The triumphal march saw brass players on both wings of the stage, 20 players, who offered gleaming and exciting sound. There was grandeur and pomp, even without the extravagant elements seen in fully staged productions.

Throughout Muti offered the singers solid orchestra support, as well as detail and color. And if the orchestra was the solid ground on which the singers performed, the chorus served as the airy clouds above them. The chorus — representing priests and priestesses, soldiers, slaves, prisoners and more — was magnificent. From quiet musings to thunderous disapproval, they were vital to the storytelling and acquitted themselves with flair and technical precision. Duain Wolfe, director of the chorus, must surely have been very proud.

The first of the three performances began with a supertitle screen, but it malfunctioned. The Friday night concert continued without the text displayed above the stage. This was the case for the Sunday performance as well, the CSO said they would not use it in Tuesday’s performance. One hopes that this will be rectified by the next time Muti serves up opera at Symphony Center.

The most striking thing about this “Aida” is the powerful hold it had on the audience. Without even the simplest of costumes, without the performers moving from their music stands, without the backdrop of pyramids or the parading of elephants, Muti created incredible drama entirely through the music itself. It was an “Aida” I will not soon forget.