Riccardo Muti more often conducts operas in concert than in staged productions these days. Even rare ventures into the pit occur only when Muti finds a director he completely trusts, as with his upcoming production of Così fan tutte in Naples which will be directed by the conductor's daughter, Chiara. A shame for those who desire something more than stand and deliver performances in opera? Possibly. But Muti's concert versions also have a lot going for them. That was, at least, the lesson learned from his latest performance of Verdi's Macbeth at the Ravenna Festival.

Riccardo Muti conducting the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
© Silvia Lelli

This was the second and final stop of Muti's Italian Macbeth tour, which opened in Florence last week marking 50 years since the conductor's debut at the festival. It was also in Florence that Muti conducted his first Macbeth, 43 years ago, and since then he has honed his interpretation through dedicated study and many performances. The results are impressive. Even in the washy acoustic of Ravenna's Palazzo Mauro de André (which doubles up as a sports arena) Verdi's score gleamed anew. Macbeth was a trailblazing work at the time of its composition in 1847, and in Muti's hands its sheer modernity was striking. Here was a commanding reading, as refined as it was deeply atmospheric and highly charged, to set sleepy Ravenna ablaze. 

Macbeth in Ravenna
© Silvia Lelli

Muti unlocks the immense dramatic potential of Verdi's revolutionary score, providing a wealth of colour and detail capable of conjuring mysterious Shakespearean worlds with no need for staging: leathery winds for bagpipes in "Fuggi regal fantasima" groaned on a misty heath; the looping cor anglais whined creepily in "Una macchia è qui tuttora!"; spidery flutes in the prelude summoned screeching ravens circling overhead. Muti embraces the score's irregularities – jagged witches' choruses sounded less trite than terrifying – though never at the expense of overall balance, and Muti achieved a transparency and clarity of sound that made the score's inner-workings gleam throughout. His well-paced reading allowed the story to unfold with unwavering coherence. Macbeth's gradual submission to evil forces was grippingly portrayed.

The Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino played wonderfully for Muti, providing razor sharp detail, sweet lyricism and an impressively weighty sound when required. Conducting onstage means Muti could properly engage with his singers, too, and they delivered the goods. Luca Salsi is an exceptional Macbeth: this highly musical baritone knows exactly what to do with an Italian libretto, here filling his lines with the nuance, expressivity and drama of a Shakespearean actor. He oozed regal splendour in "Pietà, rispetto, amore" and raised pulses with chilling word-painting in the banquet scene, and there was not a hint of throatiness or over-exertion in the baritone's robustly supported sound. Many shout the opening victory cry in "O lieto augurio"; Salsi made it roar from the depths of his soul. 

Vittoria Yeo and Luca Salsi
© Silvia Lelli

Vittoria Yeo, the Korean soprano trained in Italy, crafted her text slickly as Lady Macbeth, not least in an imaginatively delivered Sleepwalking scene. The soprano's coloratura was not entirely rock solid but impressive nevertheless, and the sharp blade of the her voice was particularly effective in the upper register. If Yeo sometimes lacked sensuality she was also relentlessly steely, best demonstrated in an unnervingly resolute "La luce langue".

Francesco Meli impressed with his secure and powerful sound (the tenor also sings with greater sensitivity and nuance with every outing). Riccardo Zanellato's solid Banquo matched trepidation with resolve in "Come dal ciel precipita", as comprehension of Macbeth's nefarious intentions begins to materialise. Antonella Carpenito and Adriano Gramigni made strong cameo appearances as the Lady-in-waiting and the Doctor, and Muti coaxed fine singing from the chorus of cackling witches and Scottish refugees. With no staging to divert attention the conductor was the unrivalled master of ceremonies, and Verdi's majestic vision spoke powerfully.


James' press trip was funded by the Ravenna Festival