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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Toppling the tyrant at La Scala

By Norman Lebrecht / March 23, 2005


La Scala this past week has been like the Kremlin during the August 1991 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 Gorbachev returned in a lame-duck role, was that the world would never be the same again.

Riccardo Muti is gone, 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 for one moment intend to resign. This was just a common or Covent Garden maestro huff of the kind that Muti threw last autumn when the Royal Opera House tinkered with La Scala's sets for Forza de Destino and Muti refused to conduct (ROH chief Antonio Pappano stepped in). No-one was astonished. The opera world has got used to Muti's limited vocabulary, an emotive 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 by seven hundred 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. Muti, now 64, 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 1970s 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 Euro 60 million refurbishment, Muti conducted Salieri's L'Europa riconoscuita, a work unseen (and with good reason), since opening night in 1778.

Under Muti, La Scala turned introspective, smug and inefficient. Obtaining anything from a ticket to a returned telephone call was fraught with obstruction. The best Verdi singers worked more happily abroad. Modernism was a dirty word. A privatisation drive yielded no more than 17 percent uptake.

Muti's concerns grew ever narrower, his horizons more peninsular. He scaled down his international career, quitting a superb orchestra in Philadelphia and losing record contracts with EMI and Philips. He turned down a $3 million post at the New York Philharmonic because, he hinted, its fawning directors failed to show ‘sufficient respect.’ Like all dictators, he nurtured an illusion of impregnability. Like communism, his oligarchy crumbled as a result of prolonged stagnation.

Without Muti, Milan is a different place and speculation is rife. The main contenders for the succession are Riccardo Chailly, who grew up in La Scala as a sovrintendente's son and Abbado's musical assistant; and Daniele Gatti, who leads the Teatro Communale in Bologna (and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London) with intense proficiency. Chailly, 52, recently moved to Leipzig as music director; Gatti, 43, is closer to hand and more alert to domestic realities.

Antonio Pappano, who fell out with Muti over the Forza fiasco, is irritated at seeing his name banded about; he is content to stay at Covent Garden. Claudio Abbado, also mooted, has neither the strength nor the urge to return. Any decision may be delayed until after next month's regional elections – all artistic jobs in Italy are governed by political affiliation – or, if contentious, until next year's general election. Silvio Berlusconi, who has given Muti unconditional support, may yet have his say, but the only way Muti can return is as Gorby did, a broken-reed leader, for a very short while.

Muti will not, of course, fade away. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is desperately seeking a replacement for Daniel Barenboim and the Salzburg Festival needs a credible musical figurehead. Both will have been on the phone by now, but a local vacancy may prove more interesting. The Israeli conductor Gary Bertini died last weekend. He was music director of San Carlo opera house in Naples, Muti's home town. San Carlo is second only to La Scala in the evolution of Italian opera. Rossini wrote nine operas for Naples, Donizetti 16, Verdi four.

San Carlo has a turbulent audience and inconsistent artistic direction; the region is run by Muti's enemies, the centre-left. But the opportunity to snub noses at the haughty northerners in Milan may be too tempting for Neapolitans to resist, and Muti will certainly be smarting to exact vengeance for his present humiliation.

The revolution, though, has barely begun. The toppling of Muti, like the fall of communism, is a symbol of a mighty public will for change but it will bring no renaissance to Italian opera until the opera houses throw off the shackles of political control over senior artistic and managerial appointments. That droit de seigneur, introduced by Mussolini, has been abused by democratic politicians ever since. It is responsible for a stupefying mediocrity across most of Italy's dozen opera houses. Until Berlusconi's grip on the baton is broken, La Scala cannot thrive.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001