Maestro’s Steady Hand Helps Resurrect Rome Opera By DANIEL J. WAKIN Published: March 31, 2013

The work was by Verdi. Three fine young singers held the Rome Opera’s stage. But the spotlight, one night last month, was unmistakably on the maestro in the pit, Riccardo Muti.

The conductor Riccardo Muti stays in the spotlight. And not just figuratively. It might have been a trick of the gloomy lighting of Werner Herzog’s production of “I Due Foscari,” but at the opening-night performance two spotlights trained on the conductor’s stand seemed at times to illuminate Mr. Muti more than anybody else, casting a sheen on his jet-black mane. Theater officials said they had not noticed, and Mr. Muti said he had nothing to do with the lighting. But this is not the only way Mr. Muti, 71, looms large at the Teatro Dell’Opera di Roma. His prestige and musical gravitas have helped resurrect this once down-at-heel theater and nudge it back toward former glory. The Muti Effect has led to full houses, a much-improved orchestra and the first invitation for the Rome Opera to perform this summer at the prestigious Salzburg Festival in Austria. Foreign critics are paying attention, and the local ones are kvelling. (“One of the most beautiful evenings of my life,” the cantankerous Paolo Isotta of Corriere Della Sera gushed about “Foscari.”)

Mr. Muti’s presence has produced an oasis of labor peace in the notoriously strike-plagued world of Italian opera, at least for the time being, and a measure of protection for the government subsidies on which performing-arts institutions here depend. For Mr. Muti the theater has become a metaphor for how Italy can actually work in a landscape gripped by political gridlock, bureaucratic tangle and economic crisis. “It’s an island in this mess,” he said over lunch several days after the “Foscari” opening. “In a city so difficult like Rome the opera house is an island of artistic discipline and good will. This is a sign of hope. Nothing is completely lost.” Mr. Muti’s journey to the Rome Opera began in 2005, when he left the Teatro Alla Scala in Milan, where he was master for nearly two decades. It was an ugly affair, a result of soured relationships and political infighting. And it left Mr. Muti without an Italian operatic anchor.

The mayor of Rome, then the left-leaning Walter Veltroni, soon asked him to conduct at the Rome Opera, and he began with a production of Verdi’s “Otello” in 2008. “I accepted to give a hand,” Mr. Muti said. “My relationship with the musicians was immediately strong and constructive.” But he had just agreed to take the job of music director at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and he declined to add a full-time post in Rome. “I couldn’t do it justice,” he said. The next mayor, the center-right Giovanni Alemanno, and the new superintendent of the opera company, Catello De Martino, continued the courtship, even traveling to Salzburg to lobby Mr. Muti for an increased role. “I said I cannot be music director, but if you want me to be more attached, you have to find a formula,” Mr. Muti said. They negotiated the title “honorary conductor for life,” which entails no administrative duties but the promise of his musical involvement. For Mr. Muti the relationship means he has a home to prepare operas in a deeper, more detailed way than is possible as a guest conductor flitting from house to house. His presence is inescapable. The opening pages of the handsome hardcover program guide for “Foscari” feature advertisements for Mr. Muti’s new book on Verdi and a recent recording.

The top name in the administrative hierarchy is his, above that of Mayor Alemanno, who is chairman of the board. At the performance, the loudest applause was reserved for Mr. Muti. “I am not encouraging my ego,” Mr. Muti said. “I have the courage to say what I think.” He generally conducts two operas and a concert each season in Rome, although because of the Verdi anniversary in 2013, the 200th of his birth, this season Mr. Muti will have done three: “Simon Boccanegra” last fall, “Foscari,” and “Nabucco” in the summer. Mr. De Martino also claims a hand in the company’s resurrection, which company members say has its roots in the previous administration. Under his stewardship, the superintendent said, a deficit of $14 million in 2008 has been eliminated. Expanded performances at the Baths of Caracalla ruins have raised income. Ticket sales rose to a predicted $11.6 million this season from $8.9 million in 2008. The opera has started a summer youth orchestra and choral academy to go with its existing ballet school, as well as programs to serve schoolchildren. A higher caliber of guest conductors seem to pass through, orchestra members say. This season they included James Conlon and Charles Dutoit. “The dream is being realized, to bring this theater back to its importance,” Mr. De Martino said. Certainly all is not perfect at the theater, the company where Puccini’s “Tosca” and Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” had their first performances, where great names like Victor de Sabata, Herbert von Karajan, Arturo Toscanini and Maria Callas appeared.

The national government, which provides the bulk of financing for opera in Italy, has cut back on the company’s subsidies, to $26.9 million from $33.3 million since 2009. The resulting uncertainty makes it hard to book the biggest stars three or four years in advance, the norm. Nor does the Rome Opera yet have the international prestige of La Scala. A performance in Rome still has its share of cheerful chaos, with the public-address system, presumably asking patrons to turn off their cellphones, inaudible during the pre-overture hubbub, and audience members loudly shouting, “Sit down,” as the lights darken. But gone are the days of creaky seats, faded décor and musical mediocrity. The orchestra playing “Foscari” was first rate, rich in color and tightknit. Mr. Muti said nine new hires, some key players, have come on his watch. “What has changed dramatically is the attitude of the musicians,” he added. “All the critics have been praising the musicians, so they feel very proud. The fact that my name is connected to them, they are very proud.” Mr. Muti has succeeded in changing the theater’s culture, orchestra members said, so that musicmaking comes first. Koram Jablonko, a co-principal violist, went to a reception room just after the “Foscari” performance to check with the maestro on her rendition of the haunting duet with the principal cellist at the beginning of Act II. “He actually said, ‘Bravissima,’” recounted Ms. Jablonko, who has been playing with the orchestra for 18 years. “It’s difficult for this orchestra to shake off the bad reputation that it ended up having in the ’80s,” she said.

Now, she added, “there’s more attention, more discipline, more happiness to be part of the team.” Mr. Muti has sought to raise standards in less obvious ways. In the past office doors left open meant that noise would filter into the hall during rehearsals. The maestro put a stop to that. He now has the orchestra stand in unison when the conductor enters the pit and unfailingly thanks them after performances. In rehearsal Mr. Muti has been demanding. His attention to detail was on display in the “Foscari” performance. As a desolate clarinet solo wafted up from the orchestra, the notes seemed to materialize without attacks. Mr. Muti said he worked specifically with the principal clarinetist, Calogero Palermo, to achieve the effect. Giovanni Gavazzeni, a music critic for the Milan daily Il Giornale and a grandson of the prominent conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni, a Rome Opera veteran, said Mr. Muti has had a “galvanizing effect.” “The Teatro Dell’Opera today has become a reference point,” he said. “You go to the theater to see shows because Maestro Muti has given it a strong electric shock.” A version of this article appeared in print on April 1, 2013, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Maestro’s Steady Hand Helps Resurrect Rome Opera .