Julius Caesar’s celebrated three word verdict on his resounding victory in Syria in 47 B.C. could easily stand for the New York appearances earlier this month by conductor Riccardo Muti . He came and conquered not one but two of the city’s musical jewels: the orchestras of the NY Philharmonic and The Metropolitan Opera.

Muti’s debut at The Met was news all by itself (a ridiculous oversight for the artistic leader of La Scala for 19 seasons). He came to conduct “Attila”, a Verdi opera close to his heart. Lusty applause broke out at his entrance in the pit. Then, at the end, I witnessed a first in near 50 years of concert-going: a standing ovation for the conductor, not the able singers.

In “Attila”, Muti caressed the score so that its lovely, heretofore neglected, melodies shone forth. For his Met engagement, he chose to use a critical edition prepared by renowned Verdi scholar, the University of Chicago’s Philip Gossett. Muit made a convincing case that this opera deserved a place in the Verdi repertoire of major opera companies.

His role was equal to that of the opera’s six singers, particularly the trio of impressive headliners:  powerful bass Ildar Abdrazakov as Attila, the King of the Huns, soprano Violetta Urmana as Odabella, daughter of the Lord of Aquileia, whom Attila killed in battle and whose proud defiance wins Attila’s heart and tenor Ramon Vargas, a knight and ally of Odabella in her plot to murder the Hun. Veteran bass Samuel Ramey, who once sang the lead role, had a small role as Pope Leo, though his delivery on his single aria was noticeably wobbly.

Muti was not well-served by the production team, all making their Met debuts.  Advance ads ballyhoed the celebrity ensemble, raising even higher expectations . Yet, the star-studded team out to be more star-crossed.  Noted architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, joined by fashion designer Miuccia Prada (sharing set and costume design credit), failed to rise to the occasion with their lackluster sets and costumes.

The Act I set was a pile of fallen beams and rubble, meant to suggest a battlefield but more reminiscent of some violent earthquake. Ms. Prada’s costumes, accenting fur, leather and gold lame, appeared drab, lacking in originality and sparkle. While director Pierre Audi chose to mount a stylized production over one favoring epic spectacle, his decision forced the singers to interact with neither the set nor one another.

Instead, for close to the entirety of Acts II and III, the singers stood within oval cutouts in a grotesque green wall of trees and leaves and delivered their arias with skill and evident conviction. The absence of dramatic action in favor of a “park and bark” approach kept any emotional exchanges close to zero. Luckily, Muti’s conducting, Verdi’s impassioned scoring and the cast’s ardent singing saved the day.

Remaining performances run through March 27, though conductor Marco Armiliato replaces Muti for the final three performances.

Two nights prior to attending “Attila”, Muti was across Lincoln Center Plaza leading the New York Philharmonic in Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 and Paul Hindemith’s Symphony in E Flat. Again, he came on stage to a hero’s welcome.  To my mind, this outpouring of admiration mixed with adulation seemed designed more to show Muti what he rejected in choosing to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra rather than the hometown band.

The program looked promising, though Muti’s choice of a neglected symphonic work last conducted by Leonard Bernstein in 1967 was puzzling.  However, the conductor’s keen  musical intelligence proved correct once again. He coaxed a rousing performance from the Philharmonic musicians, who played full-out for an obviously favorite maestro.

The evening’s only false note was supplied by the piano soloist, Andras Schiff.    Mr. Schiff enjoys a stellar reputation with the work of certain early composers but he clearly wasn’t up to playing Brahms. To my ears, throughout the concerto, he simply played the notes at the expense of any sustained, singing line. His touch was too light until the very end when he crudely banged out the final pages. He  seemed totally at sea, demonstrating a lack of any overarching vision about Brahms’ intentions.  However, he was called back several times and even applauded warmly by the musicians. I felt they should have shown better judgment and sat silent.

Footnote: The Met’s next HD production, “Hamlet” will be shown in movie theaters nationwide on Saturday, March 27.  For information and tickets, go to To catch the conquering Muti, he’ll be in Chicago starting in September.

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