He’s not wrong; Teutonic condescension to southern European culture has long loomed large. For his part, Mr. Muti has responded with Verdi interpretations that are pledges of allegiance to each marking in the music, each 16th rest (never to be confused with an eighth rest, so help him God).
The performance on Friday sometimes had the feel of a time capsule being prepared. In a hundred years, this “Aida” could be opened and you could recreate the score, note by note, as if taking dictation from Verdi himself.
As an orchestral showcase, it was always impressive — the tempos judicious; the sound unfailingly balanced; the winds, in particular, beautifully blended. Mr. Muti has appointed three players in the past few years whose interplay was a model of sensitivity: Stefan Ragnar Hoskuldsson, principal flute of the Met Orchestra before coming to Chicago; Keith Buncke, principal bassoon; and William Welter, new this season as principal oboe, and remarkably full and liquid in tone and line.
The playing of this “Aida” was in many ways exemplary. And yet, like Mr. Muti’s performance of the opera at the Salzburg Festival two years ago — with the Vienna Philharmonic an even more extravagantly virtuosic and sensual partner — it was often cool to the touch. It was a practically flawless reading of the score, but it was never moving. The drama barely crackled. Even the most forceful moments felt rounded off, smoothed out, ultimately muted.
I found myself, as I never have before, wanting more heft from the brass players, notorious for playing too loud but often superbly elegant on Friday. I wish that at the end of the Judgment Scene, when their howls mark the opera’s climax, Mr. Muti had really unleashed them. Controlled wildness isn’t the same as vulgarity.
That’s one lesson about opera that should be remembered. Another is that intelligence and respect for the score are integral, but only get you so far. Without vocal richness and power, “Aida” means little; the work’s structure must of course be correct, but great singing fills it with life.