04/18/2011 01:37 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2011

Muti's Otello and War Horse

Yes, I realize that writing about a concert version of an operatic masterpiece and a new play seems like comparing apples and oranges, but please bear with me.

Ostensibly the only reason for the comparison is that I experienced the two things within a few nights of each other. I saw War Horse first. The play has been a huge hit at the National Theater in London for the last three years. Lincoln Center Theater -- only an institutional theater could afford to mount an epic production with such a large cast -- opened it at the Vivian Beaumont this week.

Based on a novel for young adults, War Horse tells the story of an English country boy and his horse, both enlisted in World War I, and the hideous things they endure. By now we are inured to plays or films about the horrors of war. Tens of millions of battlefield deaths are merely statistics. They have no impact on us. But when an animal suffers, we can't help but respond.

The brilliance of War Horse is that it uses the most expert puppetry to make Joey, its equine hero, an utterly believable character. When, toward the very end, Joey encounters one of the "innovations" of World War I, the use of barbed wire, we feel the pain and cruelty viscerally. This stems in part from the phenomenal expertise of the three puppeteers who move the wicker frame that is Joey. Their simulation of horse movement is as precise and compelling as classical ballet.

By the time Joey gets snagged in the Germans' barbed wire -- itself a stage prop of great imaginative design -- he has been through any number of catastrophes. It seems so unfair for him to meet his fate confronting something so mundane rather than in the explosions and bombs he has somehow survived.

Yes, there is a quality of make believe in Joey's saga -- eight million horses died in World War I, the last war in which they played any part. Few were as lucky as Joey in outwitting disaster -- and reuniting with his master on the battlefield. But the happy ending can only seem ironic, a way of highlighting the far grimmer reality.

The stagecraft in War Horse has a monumental quality. The lighting, the special effects never seem overdone or gimmicky. They all contribute to create a canvas of astounding power. The acting is also on an extraordinary high level, and I was pleased to see they're American.

I am among those who think Verdi's Otello is superior to Shakespeare's in the economy and directness with which it tells the story. Doubtless some day I'll see a great production of the play in which all those scenes that -- when you know the opera -- seem extraneous will take on dramatic force. But the opera is seamless -- Verdi's librettist, Arrigo Boito adapted the sprawling play brilliantly. Not a moment seems wasted.

Normally one hears Otello in an opera house with the orchestra buried in a pit. To see it in Carnegie Hall, with the full Chicago Symphony -- easily three times as many musicians as you could squeeze into a pit -- might seem overkill, but the score is mighty enough to support this kind of super-magnification. And the acoustics of the hall only made it seem mightier.

Otello begins with a thunderstorm that utilizes every instrument of the orchestra -- fortissimo. The opening chords were stupendous, almost making you worry the whole thing might be de trop. Not with Maestro Muti. A little while later, during the impassioned love duet, the orchestra made a perfectly hushed accompaniment to the singers. Rarely, even with far smaller orchestras, have I heard the voices and the instruments blend so smoothly.

Muti went from triumph to triumph revealing the beauty and power of the score. The soloists were magnificent. It was announced beforehand that tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko was suffering from a stomach ailment. Nothing about his anguished portrayal of the title character was less than heroic. Similarly, as Desdemona Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyonova was tremendously moving. I don't think i have ever heard the "Willow Song" and "Ave Maria" sung as exquisitely as she did. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. Carlo Guelfi was a suave, unsettling Iago, and Juan Francisco Gatell was a perfect Cassio.

Added to these forces was the entire Chicago Symphony Chorus and even its children's choir, all of whom sang with impeccably clarity and richness. I only hope someone in the hall was recording this unforgettable performance -- I doubt I shall ever hear the score performed so powerfully.

So what do the opera and the play have in common? They are both works on a monumental scale. In the 19th century this was standard. Think of it -- all of the music and even literature, yes, even the painting of the 19th century has a grandeur to it, which was undercut in the 20th. Even the most important novels of the 20th century seem like miniatures compared to the great works of writers like Hugo, Dickens or Tolstoy.

When we go to the opera we expect to be reminded of the profound depths of human nature. That used to be true in the theater too, but in recent years we have become accustomed to focusing on the trivial.

On both these evenings I was reminded of why I chose to spend my life sitting in darkened theaters. From my early theatergoing in the '50s I saw that what happened onstage portrayed deeper dimensions of what happens in "the real world," returning us to that world with a renewed sense of the mystery and promise of human existence. Yes, for me the theater, musical or dramatic, has always had a quasi-religious dimension. How thrilling to experience that twice in only a week!!!