Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Toppling of a Tyrant; the Fall of Riccardo Muti at la Scala Could Herald a New Dawn for Italian Opera

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Toppling of a Tyrant; the Fall of Riccardo Muti at la Scala Could Herald a New Dawn for Italian Opera

Article excerpt


LA SCALA this past week has been like the Kremlin during the putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev. For days on end, no one knew who was in charge or what was going on.

The only certainty, even when Gorby returned in a lame-duck role, was that the world would never be the same again.

Riccardo Muti is gone from La Scala, that much is clear. Omnipotent for 19 years, the music director walked out when the company rose up against his ousting of an internally popular sovrintendente (general manager), Carlo Fontana, and his replacement by the more pliant Mauro Meli. Muti, affronted, declared that he could no longer make music in "the atmosphere created by the insinuations, the insults, and the incomprehension".

He did not intend to resign. This was just a common-or-garden maestro huff of the kind that Muti threw last autumn when the Royal Opera House tinkered with the visiting La Scala's sets for La Forza del Destino and Muti refused to conduct (ROH chief Antonio Pappano stepped in). No one was astonished at his cancellation. The opera world has got used to Muti's limited vocabulary, an emotional lexicon lacking in compromise. There is only one way to work with Muti: his way.

This time, though, his obduracy unlocked a floodgate of pent-up rage.

The staff of La Scala, led by the orchestra, voted last week by 700 to five on a motion calling for Muti's dismissal, along with Meli and the politically appointed board of directors. Two retired judges, fearless investigators of political corruption, announced that they were looking into Meli's appointment. The mayor of Milan, Gabriele Albertini, rallied to Muti's side and appointed a mediator. But as the maestro skulked behind high walls at his home in Ravenna, it began to appear that there was no way back. La Scala, the crucible of Italian opera where Verdi and Puccini created their immortal works, was tasting the heady air of freedom.

Gradually, a realisation dawned that Muti's tyranny was at an end. The relief was spontaneous and universal. Milan, more with a whimper than a bang, had brought down a musical dictator who modelled himself on Arturo Toscanini, demanding fanatical fidelity to the score and throwing screaming fits when thwarted. Beyond the notes on the page and the traditions of the venerable house, Muti showed little intellectual curiosity or spirit of adventure.

Now 64, Muti is a self-made anachronism. A Neapolitan of modest origins, in ever-black designer hair and suits so sharp you can cut a finger on the crease, he tempers feral energy and vicious tantrums with a magnetic warmth that he switches on and off at will.

A despot of the old school, in Seventies London he revitalised the Philharmonia Orchestra with heroic repertoire in high-tension performances.

He took over La Scala in 1986 from Claudio Abbado, a socialist, progressive and cosmopolitan. Muti turned the clock back and pulled the shutters down. He favoured stagings that were static and archaic. His performances were unendurably long, restoring every cut made by stagewise composers. Rossini's William Tell took almost six hours, worse than Wagner at his windiest.

Reopening La Scala last December after a [pounds sterling]42.6 million refurbishment, Muti conducted Salieri's L'Europa riconoscuita, a work unseen (and with good reason), since opening night in 1778. …

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