Even star singers are forced to recede when collaborating with this conductor: It is no coincidence that in the final seconds of the opera, the only illumination in the theater was focused squarely on the podium. (And don’t you forget it, the spotlight seemed to say.)
It is true that Mr. Muti creates effects you didn’t quite think possible. The phrases of the prelude at first seemed daringly separate and wispy, bits of metallic thread, before they began to weave together and almost physically coalesce. The span of “Aida,” from the personal to the epic, was distilled in just a couple of minutes.
The Vienna Philharmonic plays for him with astonishing virtuosity: strings of tactile fullness; tangy winds; bursts of ideally round and peppery brasses. The chorus’s temple chants at the end of the first act had eerie mistiness, as if enacting rather than just describing the birth of the world.
But as an operatic pit band, that Philharmonic virtuosity can tip over into seeming overcharged and overdetailed, as if “Aida” were an orchestral tone poem with some singing way, way in the background. The drama becomes purely about sound, not about the characters onstage. The surges of strings during Aida’s duet with her father, Amonasro (the sturdy baritone Luca Salsi), didn’t seem like their heartbeat; they were just strings played with relentless gorgeousness, something to admire rather than feel.
This was about the least intimate “Aida” possible, with even passing moments — loud or soft, fast or slow — examined, polished, held up for display. All that emphasis grew wearying, even deadening, and the climactic judgment scene was slowed to the point of trudging.
Mr. Muti’s operas in concert have in recent years seemed more alive than his staged productions, though his “Manon Lescaut” with Ms. Netrebko in Rome in 2014, their first collaboration, felt more personal and unaffected than this. There, they seemed to be putting on an opera, rather than an edifice.
The staging of “Aida” chilled things, too. In her…