Ever since Riccardo Muti founded his Italian Opera Academy in his home town of Ravenna in 2015, he has been on a mission to pass on what he perceives as the true tradition in conducting Italian opera, particularly in Verdi, which he himself learnt from his teacher Antonino Votto, who himself was a repetiteur to Arturo Toscanini at La Scala. This project has been so successful that this spring the Academy was held for the first time in Japan as part of the Spring Festival in Tokyo with which Muti has had a fruitful relationship. Four young conductors, chosen from 120 applicants, took part in the week-long masterclass on conducting Rigoletto, complete with professional singers and a specially assembled Festival Orchestra.

Riccardo Muti conducts excerpts from <i>Rigoletto</i> © Spring Festival in Tokyo | Satoshi Aoyagi
Riccardo Muti conducts excerpts from Rigoletto
© Spring Festival in Tokyo | Satoshi Aoyagi

On the final day of the Opera Academy in Tokyo, however, it was Muti’s turn to take to the podium and he conducted substantial excerpts from Rigoletto in the main hall of Tokyo Bunka Kaikan. The venue, in which he made his debut in 1975 with the Vienna Philharmonic, is still his favourite hall. For the Academy participants, it was a culmination of the week to watch a model performance by the maestro (they were each awarded a certificate after the concert), but also for the general public, it was a rare opportunity to see Muti in action in opera, which he only occasionally conducts these days.

This was a digest version of Rigoletto and we got about 100 minutes of the music in this concert performance. Only eight soloists took part and no chorus (except for a small men’s chorus for the storm scene), so several scenes were omitted. For example, in Act 1, after the orchestral prelude, Muti jumped straight into Rigoletto's encounter with Sparafucile. The abduction scene was omitted, as were others involving the chorus.

The singers, handpicked by Muti himself, were mainly young or emerging singers, some of them participants of the past academies in Ravenna. To be honest, they were variable, but the two female leads made a strong impression. Soprano Venera Protasova showed real promise in the role of Gilda. A light lyric with an assured technique and transparent tone, she can float her high notes effortlessly, and in her aria “Caro nome”, she produced the top B out of thin air with beautiful control (Yoshie Ueno’s flute obligato was superb too). Perhaps Italian diction is not Protasova’s strong point, but she portrayed Gilda’s vulnerability and innocence with natural flair and genuine emotion. In contrast, mezzo Daniela Pini, probably the most experienced singer of this cast, brought sexual charm and gutsiness to the role of Maddalena with her attractive, dark-hued timbre, and this contrast of the two women created dramatic tension in Act 3.

Riccardo Muti conducts excerpts from <i>Rigoletto</i> © Spring Festival in Tokyo | Koji Iida
Riccardo Muti conducts excerpts from Rigoletto
© Spring Festival in Tokyo | Koji Iida

The role of the disfigured jester Rigoletto was sung by baritone Francesco Landolfi, who sang the part securely and suavely; his voice was more suited to the loving father, but lacked the power and raw energy as a man on a revenge. Tenor Giordano Lucà (audience prize winner at the 2009 Cardiff Singer) as the Duke of Mantua seemed to be having an off night, walking off stage briefly before his Act 2 aria, possibly to get some water. He did improve after the interval and managed to dispatch “La donna è mobile” with charm but overall he seemed rather insecure. Neither Landolfi nor Lucà had enough vocal power to cut across the rich-sounding orchestra on the stage. Of the male singers, bass Antonio Di Matteo as Sparafucile was the most convincing vocally and dramatically. It’s still a youthful voice but I’m sure he will develop into a noble bass singer.

Ultimately, the real movers and shakers of this performance was the Festival Orchestra. Made up of the younger generation of Japan’s orchestral players and freelance players, they were super-responsive to Muti’s every gesture – phrasing, articulation, dynamics and tempo change – and played with intense energy, but also with an Italianate clarity. Actually Muti’s conducting is pretty economical, sometimes not even beating time, but the beauty of his conducting is how he eloquently brings out the parts that carries the inner drama of the music, making one realise that so much of the drama in Verdi is already in the orchestration. His tempi are steady compared to modern trends, but the seamless handling of the tempo transitions was a masterclass in itself. There were outstanding solo contributions from the principal cello as well as the woodwind principals, and the lower string section was particularly sonorous. Muti upped the emotional gear of the performance from the storm scene in Act 3, where he whipped up an almighty tempest, and the final scene with Rigoletto and the dying Gilda was heart-wrenchingly intense. It was clear that the musicians loved working with Muti and there was a strong bond between them. They will be a great asset for the Opera Academy project in Tokyo which continues next spring with Macbeth.