According to Riccardo Muti in a recent interview for Chicago Classical Review, the cardinal sins of modern conductors when interpreting Verdi are over-aggression and vulgarity. He also notes in an interview included in the concert program that one of the most unique aspects of Macbeth is its use of expressively soft dynamics, even going as far to call the technique avant-garde. These insights make sense in the context of his 1 October performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as the most impressive aspect was the extreme range explored within the music’s emotional and sonic spectrum.

Despite numerous instances of potent orchestration throughout Verdi’s Macbeth, the most powerful moments of Muti’s interpretation could be found in the softest, most subdued passages. This is particularly true of the opera’s concluding third and fourth acts. For example, Verdi shapes the beginning of Act IV by oscillating between dense and sparse orchestrations (usually featuring a sustained string section), and he uses the latter to pivot to new and often unexpected sections. Muti enhances this by bringing a smooth seamlessness to these dramatic drop-offs, as if the full orchestra was an ornate tapestry suddenly stripped away to reveal that which was hidden the whole time.

Muti counteracts the aggression of other conductors by favoring lush lyricism from the orchestra. This is not to say that all boldness has been bled dry – no performance of Verdi would be complete without this pomp – but it strikes a balance that, relatively speaking, favors romanticism. This balance is not always struck effectively. Duncan’s murder in Act I features aggressive rhythms in the strings that are played too smoothly in context, and the brass are rarely used for softer effects. Still, the extremely expressive final acts negotiate this equilibrium strikingly, finding moments of great intensity punctuated most notably by the stellar Chicago Symphony Chorus.

Aside from offering intriguing musical contrast, Muti’s delicate interpretation matches the introspection that distinguishes Verdi’s reading of Macbeth. As Muti observes in his CCR interview, Verdi emphasizes the psychology between his leads by moving much of the action off stage in the staged production. The dynamic range of the orchestra bores a welcoming crevasse for the subconscious realms of these characters to nest, and the vocal soloists inhabit this space chillingly. The scene in Act IV where a lady-in-waiting (Simge Buyukedes) and a doctor (Gianluca Buratto) show concern over Lady Macbeth (Tatiana Serjan) demonstrates this particularly well, as both of the former soloists project expressively subdued whisper-tones to convey the impending sense of dread.

As strong as all the soloists are, Serjan shines brilliantly in her role, particularly from the perspective of Muti’s introspective interpretation. She is easily the most physically expressive soloist, grasping out towards the audience and wearing each pained emotion on her face. Her energy was even contagious: Luca Salsi, who plays Macbeth, was relatively restrained in his early scene with Banquo (Dmitry Belosselskiy), but he interacts playfully with Serjan after she is introduced. Serjan also executed remarkable facility throughout the expansive vocal range of her part, making extreme lows and highs sound equally powerful and effortless.

However, the strongest aspect of her performance was her tremendous emotional versatility. Even without her verbose physical gestures, the audience would have been raptured by the expressions found within her phrasing, which often veered between restrained and frantic within a single phrase. The finest example of this occurs in Lady Macbeth’s climactic sleepwalking scene in Act IV, in which the perpetual uncertainty of her character was vividly portrayed by stark shifts in dynamics, pitch, and timbre. Not coincidentally, this aria inspired the longest ovation from the audience within the opera.

Being a concert performance, it obviously lacked the visual stimulation of a staged production, but it made up for this to some extent with the use of off-stage chamber groups. At the very least, these helped create the illusion of dimension for the performance, and they achieved varying degrees of success. The most prominent of these happened toward the end of Act I, where a distant military band played through numerous stanzas of a battle hymn. It was an interesting effect, but it also went on too long, and the orchestra (especially Muti) became visibly antsy by the end. A much more effective use occurred in Act III, where a small woodwind choir played a chorale beneath the stage. This placement created an eerie effect that beautifully emulated a ghostly cry. It was also then paired with on-stage string runs, which made for an unexpectedly fresh color.

Muti’s rendition of Macbeth was clearly thought through on many different levels, which made for a surprisingly dramatic concert performance. And while great power came from the totality of all musicians on stage together, it was Muti’s attention to subtle moments that gave the performance its strength.