Riccardo Muti: The monster of Milan
The opera has seen its fair share of prima donnas. But generally they appear on the stage, not in front of it wielding a baton. And few can match the tantrums, demands and vanity of the conductor of La Scala, whose behaviour led to a walk-out last week by the entire house. Franco Zeffirelli described him as 'drunk on himself' and accuses him of debasing his art. And that's not the half of it...
By David Mellor
20 March 2005
It's not often a conductor makes front-page news except when he dies, but Italian maestro Riccardo Muti is managing it pretty often these days. Last year, it was by walking out of a long-gestated Covent Garden production for the most spurious of reasons; someone had lopped off a bit of the scenery. This week he is headline news again as almost the entire workforce, from musicians to chippies and hat-check girls at Italy's premier opera house, La Scala, Milan, walked out in protest at his autocratic rule.
Carlo Fontana, the general manager whose ousting at Muti's behest brought on the crisis, declared: "The people of La Scala have rejected absolute monarchy." But Muti, universally known, not necessarily admiringly, as Napoleone, will not be easy to shift. He's been there for almost 20 years and is as robust a musical politician as he is a conductor.
Perhaps shrewdly, he has turned the issue into a party political issue at a sensitive time in Italy with elections on the horizon. With the left baying for blood, the Berlusconi administration, at national and city level, has had to back Muti. Culture minister Giuliano Urbani said last week he hoped Muti would remain at La Scala "for the present and for years to come". Napoleone himself does not seem ready for St Helena just yet.
So what manner of man is this Muti? He's a good-looking fellow with, even at 63, a mane of lustrous black hair, of which he is inordinately proud. His detractors say his character can be summed up in a single anecdote.
The story goes that Muti was marooned in the Sahara without water, and with a remorseless sun beating down. For days he is without refreshment and he cries out in vain to God for water. Finally God relents. He invites Muti to cup his hands, and pours a dozen precious drops into them. The grateful Muti runs his fingers through his hair.
Muti is now reaping the whirlwind of all the years he has allowed his temperament to upstage his talent. But what a talent it was. "The most musical of all the conductors I've ever worked with," one leading recording executive told me.
But the reopening of La Scala shows Muti at his worst. Damning the proposed programme after four years of closure for being too populist, Muti high-handedly substituted one of his own, containing half a dozen operas that haven't been done in modern times. And talent or no talent, most people in the house have had enough of a regime where, as one described it, "Supplicants gather outside his door like the Marschallin's levée."
Many years ago, when Muti was still a normal human being, he seemed the most naturally gifted and charismatic conductor of his generation. Born in 1941 in Naples, and originally trained musically by his doctor father, Muti excelled at the Milan conservatoire, and was still in his twenties when appointed music director of the prestigious Maggio Musicale in Florence in 1968.
He built his reputation as an operatic conductor, and his exceptional ability with singers has been apparent throughout his career. But, in 1972, when the ailing Otto Klemperer vacated the conductor's chair at the Philharmonia in London, the orchestra offered the young Italian the chance to show he was as good on the podium as in the pit. And Muti seized the chance with both hands, as he and his rejuvenated band embarked on a decade of exceptional music-making with, among other joys, stunning performances of the symphonies of Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn and Schumann, all of them happily preserved on disc.
Audiences warmed to the hot-blooded but engaging young Italian, and so too did the critics, though that wasn't to last. But put on any of the EMI recordings of the period, and the magic comes back. Just as it did briefly in an exceptional concert to mark the Philharmonia's 60th birthday in January.
But to regard those early CDs as displaying the best of him is a backhanded compliment, because they should have been supplanted by even better, more mature interpretations, after Muti moved on to the Philadelphia Orchestra (1980-1992). He also had guest slots with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and pretty much everywhere else, making many recordings along the way.
But greatness never quite happened. Musical taste moved on, but Muti didn't. He is a masterful fellow, a self-made man who loves his maker. A good manager would have told him not to end his EMI connection, and lurch freelance into a series of short term liaisons with other companies yielding little or nothing of lasting merit.
But Muti has never had a proper manager. He thinks he hasn't needed one. He was indeed the most gifted of his generation in the opera house, as his early EMI recordings of Aida and Macbeth testify, but there was no one to insist that he keep up to date in the concert hall, broaden his repertory or keep his own behaviour under control.
Muti is an old-fashioned "wall of sound" man. Not for him the lighter, springier touch of contemporaries who have learnt something from the period performance movement. Even an autocrat like the great Sir Georg Solti started changing his style towards the end, as in his sprightly recording of Haydn's Creation. And our own Sir Charles Mackerras, a musician as much loved as he is respected, is, in his 80th year, finally in demand in Berlin and in Vienna because he has made himself a bridge between tradition and the authenticists. Muti hasn't been in Berlin for years.
A senior figure in orchestral management who likes and admires Muti says he is "the most maestro-ish of all maestros". This is not an age of autocrats, he continued, yet Muti behaves "as if he is vying with Toscanini to be the most outrageous of them all". As self-belief degenerated into self-love, Muti broke the golden rule of flattery - enjoy it but don't inhale. And thus did the engaging young genius of the Philharmonia become the monster of Milan.
So whither Muti now? Instead of straddling the musical world like a colossus, he has found in La Scala his last redoubt. And an uncertain one. In his mid-sixties, he should be entering his greatest phase as a conductor. But he isn't.
Of course if La Scala ends in tears, he is too talented not to be snapped up somewhere, and maybe somewhere good. But nothing like as good as it should have got for a man who ought by now to have been at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic.
The last world should go to the legendary director Franco Zeffirelli, not a left-winger like most of Muti's Milan critics, nor a stranger to egomania. In a virulent outburst Zeffirelli first denounced Muti's Scala regime: "La Scala has lost that magic. It has become the Vanity Fair of a mediocre conductor. The level of La Scala has gone down the sink."
And then he really got personal. Muti, he said, is "... drunk with himself, drugged by his own art, and his own personal vanity. He can only talk about himself. He has become a caricature of a maestro."
All very sad. And the saddest thing of all is that apart from Muti himself, no one has told Zeffirelli he is wrong. It could and should all have been so different.
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