A fight at the opera: astonishment as Muti calls off rare visit to London over change of scenery

Given his Neapolitan roots, it would be foolish not to expect some volatile behaviour from the world-famous conductor Riccardo Muti. But there was still widespread astonishment yesterday when he pulled out of his first appearance at the Royal Opera House for 20 years, with less than a month's notice, after a dispute over changes to the scenery.

Muti was due to make a rare trip to London next month to conduct Verdi's La Forza del Destino, which was originally produced at La Scala opera house in Milan where he is the musical director.

But the agreement foundered after the production's director and designer, Hugo De Ana, rebuffed repeated efforts by Royal Opera House management to agree changes to the scenery needed for the Covent Garden stage.

And when De Ana insisted on his name being withdrawn from the production, Muti pulled out in support. Attempts to talk him round failed, prompting anger at the Royal Opera House.

In a caustic statement issued jointly by Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera's music director, Elaine Padmore, its director of opera, and Tony Hall, the chief executive, the Covent Garden team made clear their "regret and extreme disappointment".

"With his director/designer Hugo De Ana, Maestro Muti does not accept what we think are minor scenic changes which need to be made to the production for it to fit safely on the Covent Garden stage," their statement said. "We are totally perplexed by Maestro Muti's last-minute decision given the level of co-operation, goodwill and trust shown by the Royal Opera House towards the maestro and the Teatro alla Scala."

Negotiations of this type were commonplace when operas were restaged in different venues, they added. "Despite numerous solutions to this problem being suggested, De Ana showed no spirit of collaboration and rejected all options presented."

Antonio Pappano has now cancelled a series of concerts in America with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and postponed a planned recording to replace Muti so the show can go on as planned on 16 October. He has just over three weeks to learn an unfamiliar score and prepare the cast and orchestra.

The fury was particularly intense as the Opera House had given Muti total freedom in his choice of operas in an attempt to woo him back. When he suggested La Forza, insiders claimed he accepted changes would be needed. The production involved heavy metal walls which were not safe or practical at Covent Garden where the opera will appear in repertory with other works. The Opera House is substituting walls that are half metal and half painted fabric which it does not believe compromise the design.

The sudden withdrawal of conductorsfor reasons other than ill-health, and particularly over design issues, is rare. John Allison, editor of Opera magazine, said Muti's behaviour appeared worthy of a prima donna. "It's very unusual and quite shocking. It's also a great pity," Allison said. "He hardly ever conducts in London. I think he is behaving stupidly. He's a great conductor, incredibly interesting, but he's arrogant."

Allison said that he disliked the "rather heavy, old-fashioned productions" of De Ana, La Scala's most prominent director. But he said: "It's good that Pappano will do it instead."

A statement issued by Teatro alla Scala in Milan made clear its disdain for the London performances. They would be described as being inspired by the La Scala production "because of the substantial changes made to the staging, as compared to the original designs".

"It is with great regret that Riccardo Muti and Hugo De Ana have decided to withdraw from this production which is not completely faithful to their conception, produced to great acclaim in Milan in 1999 and Tokyo in 2000," the statement said.

"Their decision is the result of long and careful thought and upholds the tradition of La Scala that any restaging correspond absolutely to the original production."

But in a nod towards peacemaking, the statement added: "Riccardo Muti, Hugo De Ana and the Teatro alla Scala express the wish that there may soon be a fresh opportunity to work together with the prestigious British Opera House."

Tempers may have to cool at Covent Garden first.

Muti, 63, has walked out on an opera he was supposed to conduct before, at Salzburg in 1992 when he was due to conduct Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito. But his reputation is largely a solid one of triumphant appearances with top orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic at festivals such as Salzburg and with whom he often records.

He has been musical director of La Scala since 1986. The opera house is due to reopen this year after a three-year refurbishment.