MILAN (AP) — Riccardo Muti received two standing ovations upon his return to La Scala's stage Sunday after an 11-year absence, not to conduct this time but to discuss his nearly two decades as music director at the fabled opera house.
"Welcome home," someone shouted from the upper tiers.
Muti's last appearance in 2005 was to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in a benefit concert just weeks after abruptly stepping down after 19-years as music director amid backstage turmoil.
"What I can say is that the return to this room and this audience is reason for great emotion," Muti told the audience, opening a two-hour chat with musical interludes provided by a string ensemble. "Even if I am one who doesn't let his emotions be seen on the outside."
Muti's appearance on the La Scala stage coincided with the opening of an exhibit on his years at La Scala, organized by the new opera house management to salve old wounds. His musical return will come next January, conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he is currently music director.
The conductor grew visibly more comfortable as the evening wore on, giving up his chair to address the audience standing up as he shared anecdotes about the theater and his long, distinguished career.
He recalled when he brought back "La Traviata" to La Scala after an absence of 26 years, describing the premiere as "something that I will never forget, not even on my deathbed."
Many in the orchestra at the time were near retirement and had played the last production of "La Traviata" two decades earlier, Muti said.
When the music started "I saw some musicians with tears in their eyes," he said. "It was incredible to hear how that sound belonged and belongs to this theater."
Critic Lorenzo Arruga, who led the conversation and curated the exhibit in the theater's museum, called the event a "gesture of gratitude toward the maestro."
The exhibit comprises photographs, recordings and videos that show Muti's influence on La Scala.
"The exhibit doesn't want to document his work at La Scala, which is so vast, wide-ranging and important," Arruga said. "We are trying to enlighten the visitor as to why Muti is a great artist and why he is so loved."
Muti's contributions to La Scala included reviving popular masterpieces like Verdi's trilogy of "Rigoletto," ''Il Trovatore" and "La Traviata" as well as the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy and Beethoven's nine symphonies, Arruga said.
"Then there is all that is not measurable, like his charisma and imagination," he said.
La Scala spokesman Paolo Besana said the exhibit was requested by general manager Alexandra Pereira and principal conductor Riccardo Chailly "as a moment of reconciliation after many years."
It also reflects Pereira and Chailly's desire to duly recognize all the artists who have helped contribute to La Scala's reputation in the music world, Besana said. He noted that Daniel Barenboim, La Scala's music director from 2011-2014, will conduct La Scala's Philharmonic Orchestra next season.
"We are trying to make regular meetings with artists who did and do make La Scala great," Besana said.