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Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Verdi Project: Macbeth

The composer escapes the galley with his first Shakespeare adaptation.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
In his later life, Giuseppe Verdi referred to the period from 1842 to 1850 as his "galley years". In those years, the composer applied his energies to writing thirteen operas (counting revisions) for the Italian stage as well as opera houses in London and Paris. Of these, one work stands out: his 1847 adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy Macbeth.



Verdi started reading Shakespeare (in translation) in his early years, and Macbeth would be his first setting of the Bard to music. His setting of the play holds true to Shakespeare's drama with a few changes: the Three Witches appear as chorus groups of six singers each. The Scottish people gather for a "Va pensiero"-style chorus, "Patria, oppressa." But the intense nature of this short, bloody tragedy remains in spirit.

Verdi uses his mastery of the orchestra to conjure up the spookier aspects of the play. The work starts with a slithering figure for double reeds, interrupted by outbursts from the orchestra. It is as if the cold fog of the Scottish battlefield is penetrating the listener's mind from the very first bars. There are some humorous incongruities in the score (King Duncan goes to his death to a jaunty little march that could have fit into any other "galley years" opera) but the atmosphere of intense dread is effective.

Macbeth ("Macbetto" in the libretto) is sung by a baritone. The role of Macbeth is very much in the following of Nabucco or Pagano in I Lombardi, an opportunity for a skilled singer to chew the scenery and slowly, convincingly go mad. With tour de force moments like the second scene with the Witches and "Pieta, rispetto, amore" this is one of the great roles, looking forward to Rigoletto and Boccanegra. Banquo is sung by a bass and Macduff is a tiny part for a good tenor.

Lady Macbeth can be sung by either a soprano with low notes or a skilled dramatic mezzo with a high range and powerful tone. The coloratura writing for the part is problematic, offering serious challenges to singers of either voice. Not only must she switch between spoken word and song, but her two major arias lie somewhere between the two ranges, with some dizzying high notes and terrifying, tricky lows. She also gets the best tune in the show: the brindisi at the banquet scene.

In 1865, Verdi and Piave reworked Macbeth as a French opera, adding a ballet, some new arias (most notably "La luce langue", a new chorus and a revised ending. However, the Paris version of the opera was not a success, and both it and the 1847 original fell into obscurity until a revival of interest in Verdi's works in the 20th century. Today, it is most common to hear the opera in Italian with the 1865 changes inserted, in a manner similar to the way opera houses stage a hybrid version of Don Carlo.

Recording Recommendations:
It's not the most commonly heard Verdi opera, but conductors and singers have made many recordings of Macbeth over the last 50 years. There are a number of recordings of this opera, with ones by conductors like Riccardo Muti (includes the ballet) Giuseppe Sinopoli and Riccardo Chailly providing intriguing options. However, these listed below are classics:

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. Erich Leinsdorf (RCA/Sony 1959)
Macbeth: Leonard Warren
Lady Macbeth: Leonie Rysanek
Banquo: Jerome Hines
Macduff: Carlo Bergonzi
Featuring the late, great Leonard Warren, a singer who died onstage at the old Metropolitan Opera House. (He did die during a Verdi opera, but it was Forza, not Macbeth.) The cast features luminaries Leonie Rysanek as his good Lady, and Carlo Bergonzi as luxury casting in the small role of Macduff. Essential, and now a dirt-cheap download from Amazon.com.

Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala cond. Claudio Abbado (DG, 1976)
Macbeth: Piero Cappucilli
Lady Macbeth: Shirley Verrett
Banquo: Nicolai Ghiaurov
Macduff: Plácido Domingo
This is one of the best opera recordings in the series made by the late great Claudio Abbado with the La Scala forces in the 1970s. Shirley Verrett is a hellacious Lady Macbeth, more than a match for her husband played by the great (and underrated) Piero Cappuccilli. An at-his-early-peak Plácido Domingo is almost luxury casting as Macduff. Mr. Abbado was a skilled, dedicated Verdian and the engineering is top-notch.

Since you've read this far, here is your reward: 90 seconds of Maria Callas singing the Brindisi from Macbeth in 1952:



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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.