Along with other early Verdi works, “Macbeth” was long dismissed as a surfeit of oompah music, but here in Chicago in 2013, Mr. Muti revealed its moody nuances. It marched inexorably forward, its grim energy matching its protagonist’s desperate ambitions.
“Falstaff” also never stops moving, its almost ceaseless action sometimes joyful, sometimes rueful, sometimes frantic. The key is to dance nimbly among these rapidly shifting moods, and no one is as spry a leader as Mr. Muti. As much as it accompanies the singers, the “Falstaff” orchestra converses with them, and on Thursday its responses — a golden brass exhalation here; an exclamation point in the low strings there; birdlike twitters of flute and oboe punctuating a rapid-fire dialogue — had unstinting comic timing. A full symphonic ensemble moved like a chamber group, as if a Mack truck were turning curves like a Maserati.
Fifteen years ago, Mr. Muti taught Falstaff to a young baritone named Ambrogio Maestri, whose hulking physique made him a natural for the part. Mr. Maestri has since become the world’s leading Sir John, singing the role in a new production at the Metropolitan Opera in 2013 and more than 200 times elsewhere.
But has his relish in the words ever been as luscious as on Thursday, his wit as sophisticated? Mr. Muti tolerates no overplaying, and Mr. Maestri here won with restraint, making the audience crack up at just the slight, randy lilt he gave a single word — “parla” (“speak”) — in the first scene of the second act. His wounded monologue at the start of Act III had the emotional range one usually expects more from the beleaguered Ford, here sung by the confident baritone Luca Salsi.
There was smiling intimacy and agility in the interplay among the four women who plot Falstaff’s humiliation, including Mistress Quickly (the rangy toned, unusually youthful mezzo Daniela Barcellona) and Meg Page (the mezzo Laura Polverelli). Sung by the soprano Eleonora Buratto, her tone lucid and suave from crystalline top to chocolaty bottom, Alice Ford — the voice of stylish wisdom — was as much the star as Falstaff.
Verdi and Boito conceived the young lovers, Fenton (the gentle tenor Saimir Pirgu) and Nannetta (gorgeously sung by the fresh, pure-voiced soprano Rosa Feola), as a joint oasis amid all the agitation. Mr. Muti rendered their duets as safe spaces of lyrical expansion, without the pace ever seeming to flag