Among the most anticipated events during Riccardo Muti’s tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have been his full-length concert presentations of operas by Giuseppe Verdi — “Otello” (2011), “Macbeth” 2013 (2013) and “Falstaff” (2016).
Not only is Muti one of the world’s preeminent interpreters of the celebrated composer’s works, his international stature allows him to assemble dream casts of soloists and then partner them with an orchestra that few if any opera houses could match.
That potent combination of elements came together again Friday evening, when the conductor and the Chicago Symphony concluded the 2018-19 season with a superb, utterly engrossing performance of “Aida,” one of Verdi’s most accomplished and oft-heard masterpieces.
The only minor blot on the evening was the surtitle screen, which was shut off after Act 1, forcing patrons to rely on a printed libretto for the English translations. According to an announcement during the first intermission, the screen was malfunctioning and making a distracting noise.
In this opera set against the backdrop of wars between Egypt and Ethiopia in the time of the ancient pharaohs, Aida, an enslaved Ethiopian princess, must choose between her love for the Egyptian general Radames and her loyalty to her father and country.
“Aida” might seem like an unlikely choice for such a concert treatment, considering that staged productions typically play up the opera’s pomp and pageantry, especially the triumphal march in the second act which has even featured elephants and other animals in some versions. But this approach successfully allowed listeners to zero in on the music and use their imaginations to fill in the action.
At the heart of this opera is the bitter romantic rivalry for Radamès between Aida (soprano Krassimira Stoyanova) and Amneris (mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili), the daughter of the Eyptian king. Their confrontational duet at the beginning of Act 2 should be and was one of the evening’s most riveting moments.
Both of these world-class artists are complete singers sensitively attuned to Verdi’s writing, and both were fully invested in these two characters. Here and in Aida’s anguished Act 1 aria, Stoyanova imbued her singing with intensity and depth, masterfully adjusting her vocal timbre to fit every minute shift in Aida’s complicated emotions.
Rachvelishvili was every bit Stoyanova’s match, with her supple, organic phrasing and a bewitchingly smoky voice that potently conveyed her character’s conflicted feelings with ferocious punch or whispered urgency.
Francesco Meli possesses an admirably full-bodied tenor voice with no shortage of power, and he proved convincing as Radamès despite a couple of wavering high notes. Although a bit more vocal oomph would have been welcome at times, baritone Kiril Manolov was effective as Aida’s father.
Deserving special note was Tasha Koontz, a member of the Chicago Symphony Chorus making her solo debut with the orchestra as the High Priestess. She has a fulsome, penetrating soprano voice and performed with unflappable poise. Rounding out the cast were bass Ildar Abdrazakov as Ramfis, bass-baritone Eric Owens as the King of Egypt and tenor Issachah Savage as the Messenger.
The Chicago Symphony Chorus, prepared by director Duain Wolfe, was, in a word, magnificent. Taking on the roles of various groups within the opera, these singers were very much actors within the drama, delivering the expansive scenes with thunderous éclat and the smallest with delicacy and finesse.
In the end, though, this evening belonged to Muti, who was clearly in his element. He captured the full sweep and drama of this innately grand opera, making sure that every big moment was indeed big, especially the wonderfully boisterous triumphal march, with its augmented brass at each side of the stage.
In an interview for the orchestra’s webpage Muti called “Aida” a “very intimate opera,” and he made it feel that way. He leaned in and backed Stoyanova note by note in her tour de force Act 1 aria, making sure the orchestra’s playing was imbued with the same pain and vulnerability as her singing. He also knew when to hold back, offering just a scattered cue or gesture in a light, airy dance in Act 2 but not feeling the need to beat time.
There was a sense throughout that no detail was too small, that everything had to be in its place. And it all added up to what just might been the apex of a 2018-19 season with no shortage of other high points along the way.
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.