Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Verdi: Macbeth (Marseilles Opera, 1988)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I screened us something, if not completely different, at least a departure from what we’d been watching lately: a download of Verdi’s opera Macbeth as performed in Marseilles on March 20, 1988. The provenance of the recording was a bit mysterious, though the mediocre visual quality said that it was a product of several generations’ worth of copying a VHS original; it was unclear whether this was actually a commercially produced video or an in-house document (though the prismatic shot of six different orchestral violinists from six different angles suggested it was made for release and not just as an historical documentation of the production). The cast was a good one, headed by Leo Nucci as Macbeth (it was a role he adopted relatively late in his career and this production was apparently his debut in it) and Ghena Dimitrova as Lady Macbeth (she was a dramatic soprano who crashed through the opera world in the 1980’s; born in Bulgaria in 1941, she made her debut in 1967 as Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco but didn’t sing in the U.S. or Britain until the early 1980’s; she retired in 2001 and died in 2005), though the rest of the cast was pretty mediocre. The conductor was Michaelangelo Veltri, and while he used the Marseilles orchestra he bolstered his chorus with professional singers from Paris. The production was a thoroughly traditional one — they didn’t decide to reset the opera in Fascist Italy or gangster Chicago or samurai Japan or the moon or Mars, nor did the director throw in people on bicycles or rabbits or Cirque du Soleil-type performers or any of the other accoutrements of what’s come to be called Regietheater. Unfortunately, it was also a pretty dull production dramatically, easy enough to follow (though the print we were watching was not subtitled, I figured the story of Macbeth was familiar enough from the play and therefore it would be easy enough to tell what was going on) but all too pitched towards the egos of the singers rather than the needs of the drama.

Macbeth was Verdi’s first foray into Shakespeare as a story source, and he composed the first version for Florence in 1847 to a libretto by his most frequent collaborator, Francesco Maria Piave, though he had some parts rewritten by his friend, poet Antonio Maffei. (One particular sticking point was Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, which his librettists kept rewriting even though what Verdi wanted, and kept telling them he wanted, was merely a literal translation of Shakespeare’s scene into Italian.) Given that he’d had his first success eight years before with Nabucco, and particularly with the famous “Va, pensiero” chorus of the Jews held in captivity in Babylon (it had become an unofficial hymn of the Risorgimento and even Verdi’s name had become code for the unification of Italy because it also happened to be the initials for “Vittorio Emmuanele, Re d’Italia” — “Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy”), he wrote another big chorus, “Patria oppressa!,” for the Scottish people to sing to lament their lot under the tyranny of Macbeth’s rule. He also wrote a big aria for the tenor singing Macduff with which to lament Macbeth’s murder of Macduff’s family, “Ah, la paterna mano” (he protests the indignity that his “paternal hand” wasn’t around to save them), but because that’s about the only memorable music the tenor gets all night it’s not surprising that opera houses don’t usually go out of their way to hire a major singer for the role (though Pavarotti and Domingo both recorded it in the sort of “luxury casting” record companies pursued much more often than live theatres).

Other than that the crux of the score lies in the big scenes for the Macbeths, especially her — Verdi seems to have been much more interested in Mrs. than Mr. Macbeth and the most memorable arias in the score are hers: the opening, “Vieni! T’affreta!,” “La luce langue” (added when Verdi prepared a revision for Paris in 1865, which was the version followed here) — when Lady Macbeth prompts her husband to have Banquo and his son Fleance killed (as all Shakespeare buffs know, Banquo dies but Fleance escapes and presumably starts the next line of Scottish kings) — the “Brindisi” (in which she vainly tries to comfort both her husband and the crowd after Banquo’s ghost appears at their big banquet — this was the scene for which the original director asked Verdi how you made the ghost appear and disappear on cue, and Verdi sent him a testy reply saying that he should write to London, where they’d been performing the same story as a spoken play for over 200 years) and the sleepwalking scene. I’ve always especially admired the sleepwalking scene if only because, just 12 years after Donizetti wrote the silly mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor that George Bernard Shaw dismissed as the soprano’s “test of skill with the first flute” (admittedly on the rare occasions that it’s performed with the glass armonica scoring Donizetti wanted, it makes a lot more dramatic sense), Verdi wrote a sequence that in its broken phrasing, its halting delivery and its final ascent to a D-flat (Verdi asked that the high note not be belted out but be sung with “un fil di voce” — “a thread of voice”) after an aria previously free of coloratura fireworks, is absolutely riveting and completely convincing as the ravings of a madwoman driven crazy by her conscience.

The performance, to the extent to which we could appreciate it, was good but not great; Leo Nucci was fully in command of his role until the ending, when he came out of character and encored Macbeth’s aria “Pietà, rispetto, amore” (the whole piece is considerably softened from its Shakespearean origins; at the point when Shakespeare’s Macbeth is raving bitterly about how life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing, Verdi’s, Piave’s and Maffei’s is singing about piety, respect and love! No wonder Tito Gobbi always cut this aria when he sang Macbeth; it wasn’t that he was afraid of its technical demands, it’s that his dramatic instinct told him it didn’t belong there, just as “Addio, fiorito asil” really doesn’t belong dramatically where it falls in Madama Butterfly) and mugged outrageously for the crowd both times. As for Dimitrova, she certainly had the right voice for Lady Macbeth, but she was in poor form that night — she missed a high D-flat at the end of the act I ensemble and, apparently fearful that it would happen again, dodged that note completely at the end of the sleepwalking scene — and once again a comparison of her to Maria Callas (who may not have sung the role until 105 years after the premiere but whose voice fully met the bizarre set of qualifications Verdi specified in a letter that’s been quoted often) shows just how much more Callas got out of the words, how much more inflection and phrasing she threw into the big arias and how, as always, she looked for depth instead of coasting along on sheer vocal power.

Still, Dimitrova is definitely an above-average Lady Macbeth in one of the most challenging soprano roles of all time, and the whole production was worth watching even though there’s a lot more dramatic truth and power to be mined from this opera even with its weaknesses — I don’t find the witches’ music as silly as some commentators do, but one would think a different sort of composer could have managed a more credible evocation of the sinister supernatural (indeed, as German composers like Mozart, Weber and Wagner already had!). Charles noted that the softening process reached almost absurd heights at the end, in which Shakespeare’s Macbeth gets shocked when the witches’ prophecies turn out quite differently from what they’d led him to believe (particularly when Birnam Wood literally advances on Dunsinane castle and he learns Macduff was “not from woman born, but from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d”) while Verdi’s just gets stabbed in a swordfight so Macduff, newly crowned King Malcolm and the other winners can sing a final ensemble over Macbeth’s dead body. I’ve long wanted to see a production of Verdi’s Macbeth that modeled itself on Orson Welles’ film of the play — that would seem to provide the right blend of reality and stylization — and maybe even cast a countertenor as one of the witches in line with Welles’ belief that at least some of the supernatural characters should be male! In this production, the closest we got was the inclusion of the ballet (added, like “La luce langue!,” for the French premiere) and some nice hot shots of both women and men clad in very revealing tights — that was fun, for decidedly unmusical and undramatic reasons!