Pavarotti, one of the two superstars of the tenor firmament, has rarely worked with Muti, and then only in concerts. They represent the poles of the operatic world: Muti the textual perfectionist, musical purist and believer in the primacy of the conductor in the tumult and seething of the opera house, and Pavarotti, who, without articulating a philosophy, personifies the belief that the singer - thus, the singing - is everything in opera.
Those opposing strains have been real, sometimes loudly expressed in Italy and in this country, and from them will come the final operatic memory of the
Muti era at the Academy of Music in his last season as music director.
Something about the very polarity of Muti's and Pavarotti's positions has brought them together in this operatic finale. Muti's belief in an ensemble approach to opera had meant that many new and unfamiliar singers had sung the major roles here. Opera audiences worldwide are torn between their allegiance to the totality or to the superstar; here, there was ongoing pressure to cast the major roles with famous names.
Muti had been eager to perform Verdi's Otello, and had even unofficially announced it. The absence of a tenor to fit his demands prevented Otello from reaching the stage here. Muti had, finally, asked Pavarotti to sing it, and Pavarotti, reportedly, accepted. He had never sung the role - the ultimate one in the Italian repertoire - and was eager to cut his name into the great stone base of that opera.
A little later, Sir Georg Solti asked Pavarotti to sing the role with the Chicago Symphony in Solti's farewell to Chicago. Pavarotti accepted that, too, and was surprised when Muti said he did not want to echo Solti's Otello nine months later in Philadelphia.
I Pagliacci was the next choice. Pavarotti learned the role of Canio more than 25 years ago for a recording, but has not sung it since. When he recorded it, he was a young lyric tenor whose voice fit oddly on the big-boned skeleton of the brutish role. In the intervening years, his voice has darkened, and he has moved from the sweet high roles in Donizetti, Mozart, Rossini and Bellini, to the darker dramatic roles in Verdi and verismo operas of Puccini and now Leoncavallo.
For Pavarotti, the role of Canio - the clown betrayed by his wife - has meant relearning everything. He has been coaching for the part with Muti and with Bob Kettelson, the American coach who has been a key aide of Muti's at La Scala since 1984. The tenor's desire to master the role is reflected in the number of individual coaching sessions spread through the final week's preparations. Says Muti, "He is working very hard. He is very serious."
Pavarotti, wrapped in scarves and followed by an entourage of people, has sat in the darkened academy, score in hand, to hear the orchestra rehearse. Those instrumental rehearsals have been coaching sessions of the highest kind.
Muti is an operatic teacher, and the orchestra has not rehearsed a note without having heard what it means in relation to the drama, the action, the characters and the composer's time and ethos.
Verismo operas - literally meaning realistic - are the Italian successors to Verdian music dramas with their high moral conflict between love and honor. The verismo works have long been seen as less noble, less artistic creations. Verismo's inventor, Pietro Mascagni, composer of Cavalleria Rusticana, said of his operatic style: "Its force lies in the voice which does not speak or sing; it yells! yells! yells!"
A COURT CASE
Ruggiero Leoncavallo, a Neapolitan, wrote his own libretto for the 1892 I Pagliacci based on the court records where his father was a police magistrate. Critics have used adjectives such as "tawdry" to place verismo in the four- century progression of opera.
Muti might have been expected to echo those derogatory words, given the operas he has chosen to perform in concert here. His opening work for Philadelphia was Verdi's early Macbeth, and in subsequent years he performed Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, Wagner's Der fliegende Hollander, and Verdi's Nabucco and Rigoletto.
But in 1991, he programmed Puccini's Tosca with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was his first experience with Puccini, and he followed his usual approach. His librarians produced a score that incoporated scholarly studies of the manuscript and subsequent performing editions, and he spent half a year digging into the history of the operatic style.
He took the same approach to I Pagliacci. Before rehearsals started last week, orchestra librarian Clint Nieweg and his staff spent three months seeking the true musical text. "Leoncavallo wrote the opera quickly," Nieweg says, "and it was produced in a hurry. That has meant that many of the details - bowings and dynamic markings of the music - were written into the performing parts rather than into the score. We have had to make the score and parts match in every detail."
Muti had conducted I Pagliacci in Florence in 1971. "Richard Tucker sang," he recalls. "I have that performance in my heart. But he said to me - a very young conductor - 'I'll sing 'la commedia e finita'?," the final line of I Pagliacci."I agreed, because I had not studied the original manuscript. Later, when I had, I realized that the tradition of having the tenor sing the final line came from Caruso, not from Leoncavallo, and that it made a common thing of the opera."
The orchestra's rehearsals last week were studded with reminders by Muti of places in the score where interpolations had obscured the quality of the music. "This is one of the most refined scores," Muti tells his surprised players. "The more vulgar you make it, the more the audiences like it. American critics say I am Swedish or something, at least that I don't understand Italian opera, but we are going to do this opera correctly. They won't like it.
"People come to hear just four notes. But we will cut them all, because those high screaming climactic notes are not in the manuscript," he says. ''They won't hear them, and I don't care."
His rehearsals have aimed at two seemingly conflicting goals: textual precision and vocal freedom. "She opens a window and love comes in," he tells the orchestra in one moment. "Play with heart." Then he puts the first violins through an intricate passage - anything but lovable and heartfelt. Afterward, he tells the frazzled violinists, "I chose this opera for you."
Teacher, conductor and dramaturge, Muti makes the opera an experience far different from the symphonic rehearsals and concerts that are the norm. Violinist Jerome Wigler, going back onstage after a break, speaks for many in the orchestra when he says: "This is great. He explains everything; we learn a lot."
The orchestra, the Westminster Choir and Philadelphia Boys Choir will perform the opera four times: Wednesday, Saturday and Feb. 14 at the Academy of Music, and Feb. 11 at Carnegie Hall in New York. The cast includes Italian soprano Daniela Dessi in her local debut as Nedda; baritone Juan Pons as Tonio; baritone Paolo Coni singing Silvio; tenor Ernesto Gavazzi as Beppe - and Pavarotti.