The final week of the Chicago Symphony’s subscription season saw music director Riccardo Muti back in town for a program of selections from 19th-century Italian operas, a repertoire in which he is virtually without peer. The occasional operatic forays of such a polished ensemble as the CSO and Chorus are reliably gratifying, although it’s a shame that Muti has not yet ventured a few blocks west to conduct a fully staged production at the Lyric Opera. These concerts were touchingly dedicated to the memory of Philip Gossett, professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Chicago, whose renowned critical editions of Verdi Muti championed.

Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra © Todd Rosenberg
Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
© Todd Rosenberg

The first half was devoted exclusively to Verdi, with a pair of overtures framing four choruses. The overture to Nabucco opened in a stately choir of trombones before giving way to a rambunctious martial theme. The iconic anthem “Va, pensiero” was obliquely suggested in the winds, particularly in Michael Henoch’s oboe – a moment of pensiveness in a performance otherwise of enormous vigor. Nabucco was further represented with two of its choruses, beginning with the choral tour de force “Gli arredi festivi”, a work of overwhelming power. The stentorian Levites were contrasted by the more graceful Virgins; cumulatively, the chorus exuded sharp diction and tight cohesion. “Va, pensiero” followed, with a silvery flute line from Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson setting the stage for the subtle entrance of the chorus that built to an impassioned outcry, an intensity that was maintained through sustained final note.

The durable Anvil Chorus from Il trovatore was delivered with stylish, gypsy ornamentations, and Muti gave a nuanced shape to each phrase to create a keen sense of operatic narrative, punctuated not in the least by the titular anvils from both sides of the stage. “Patria oppressa!” from Macbeth brought to mind Muti’s memorable performance of the complete opera on the same stage in 2013, and the excerpt in question opened with an ominous rumbling in the timpani and bass drum along with the low brass, bringing to life to dark-hued vista of the Shakespeare play. The forlorn chorus of Scottish refugees sang of their oppression, not far removed from the aspirations of the Hebrew slaves so powerfully articulated in “Va, pensiero”.

Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus © Todd Rosenberg
Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
© Todd Rosenberg

The Verdi portion of the program concluded with the overture to I vespri siciliani, perhaps continuing the theme of political dissidence as the opera concerns the French occupation of Sicily in the 13th century. The sprightly influence of Rossini was apparent, yet it was not without Verdi’s unmistakable stamp. This was an impressive display of orchestral virtuosity, with a lyrical melody in the cellos a contrasting highpoint, and all moving parts were seamlessly brought together by the pre-eminent Verdian on the podium.

The latter half began with two intermezzos by composers from the generation following Verdi, both of whom eagerly followed in the elder composer’s footsteps. The Intermezzo from Puccini's Manon Lescaut began with long-breathed solo passages by cellist John Sharp and violist Li-Kuo Chang, and the orchestra swelled to a searing passion, of the kind that would ensure the composer’s immortality in the blockbuster operas he was about to write. The lush strings in the Intermezzo from Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana were almost sinfully beautiful, and the organ added another layer of sumptuousness.

While Arrigo Boito is little remembered today as a composer, his name is certainly recognizable as the librettist to Verdi’s incomparable final two operas, Otello and Falstaff. The Prologue to his only extant completed opera as composer (serving as his own librettist as well), Mefistofele, does occasionally still appear on concert programs, although astonishingly this is a score the CSO hasn’t touched since 1897.

Riccardo Zanellato with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus © Todd Rosenberg
Riccardo Zanellato with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
© Todd Rosenberg

Just under half an hour in duration, the Prologue is set in heaven – apparent through the liberal use of harps and the angelic sounds of the chorus – and involved the title character addressing God, brashly announcing his intention of winning Faust's soul. Bass Riccardo Zanellato delivered the role of Mefistofele with heft and a commanding vocal presence. One was quite struck by the almost jarring modernism of the orchestral writing which must have been quite an affront to the audiences at the work's 1868 première at La Scala. Harmonically, the influence of Wagner was never far away, and Boito drew from a colorful palette that included an offstage banda of brass and percussion, and even a prominent part for the accordion. Stirring brass chorales were especially well executed, and the addition of the Chicago Children's Choir under the expert direction of Josephine Lee added a touch of innocence and evanescence. The masses were rallied for the Prologue's final moments, closing magnificently in radiant glory.