The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its music director Riccardo Muti contributed to the worldwide celebrations of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death with a concert version of Verdi’s Falstaff, the third Shakespeare-inspired Verdi opera the Italian maestro has conducted at Chicago Symphony Center. Previous performances of Otello and Macbeth have been considered high points of Muti’s tenure. With his deep respect for the written score and willingness to strip away any alteration stemming from an interpretative “tradition” related to famous singers’ demands, Muti is the ideal conductor to bring Verdi's music to a 21st century audience. His elegant and “cool” conducting style, his ability to patiently shape every detail, every accent have also singled him out in a landscape dominated by impassioned 30-something maestros.

In conducting Falstaff, Muti emphasized the peculiarities of this opera, one of Verdi’s only two comedies. There is no closer association between words and music than the one in his last masterpiece. The musical lines follow all the twists and turns of the text. The libretto that Arrigo Boito wrote, based on the Bard’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and several scenes from Henry IV, Parts I and II, requires singers that not only pronounce Italian correctly but also comprehend the meaning of the words. The maestro made sure that every syllable – the famous repeated “Reverenza!” of Mistress Quickly is a good example – was intoned with a proper “Verdi accent” by a cast of idiomatic Italian singers.

Muti also brought forward the opera's exceptional, chamber ensemble like, orchestration. There is no thumping of big drums, no overloaded oompah music, and no big traditional aria in this score, just superb “conversations” between voices and individual woodwind or brass instruments.

Ambrogio Maestri was coached to sing the character of Sir John Falstaff by Muti at La Scala, criss-crossing the great opera houses in a role that he perfectly inhabits. Falstaffian in his appearance, Maestri is still deriving a visible pleasure from singing and also acting the part in front of an enthusiastic public. There is no one else today that can even come close to his complex, touching Sir John. If other main male voices – tenor Samir Pirgu as Fenton, baritone Luca Salsi as Ford – were not as outstanding, soprano Eleonora Buratto, with a mellifluous tone and a wide vocal range, displayed a remarkable stage presence as Alice Ford. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona sang the role of Mistress Quickly and Rosa Feola revealed an expressive lyric soprano voice as the ingénue Nannetta.

The wonderful CSO musicians have obviously very few opportunities to act as a “pit” orchestra. Riccardo Muti should plan to lead them in other opera performances.