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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Macbeth. Opera in 4 Acts. (Original 1847 version)
Macbeth, Peter Glossop (bar); Lady Macbeth, Rita Hunter (sop); Banquo, John Tomlinson (bass); Macduff, Kenneth Collins (ten); Malcolm, Richard Greager (ten); Lady in Waiting, Ludmilla Andrew (sop); Doctor, Christian du Plessis (bar)
BBC Singers
BBC Concert Orchestra/John Matheson
First broadcast by the BBC on 15 April 1979
OPERA RARA ORCV 301 [2CDs: 76.08+56.47]


This is the first of five original versions of Verdi operas first recorded and broadcast by the BBC in the 1970s. This Opera Rara issue of Verdi’s original version of Macbeth is shortly to be joined by ‘Simon Boccanegra’, and in the autumn by ‘Les Vêpres Siciliennes’; the remaining two operas, ‘Don Carlos’ and ‘La Forza del Destino’, will follow in 2005. This, and the other impending releases in this series, have been facilitated by the support of the Peter Moores Foundation. All Verdians will be grateful for the opportunity these issues will provide to compare the original with the better known, often recorded, revisions.

There are 28 titles in the Verdi operatic oeuvre of which there are 26 musically distinct works. The other two works, ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Aroldo’, are re-writes, to different libretti, of earlier works. The former was the first re-write and was undertaken to allow Verdi to dip his toes into the money-pot and artistic quality of opera performance in Paris. There costly spectacle and ballet scenes were de rigueur with musical standards far superior to those found in Italy. The re-write of Stiffelio, as Aroldo, was influenced by the Italian censors who constantly suppressed the original with its married Protestant minister who returns home to find his wife guilty of adultery and ends up by forgiving her from the pulpit. Verdi undertook substantial re-writes of several of his other operas without altering the title. These re-writes were often associated with performances in Paris and involved translation back into Italian. This is the case with Macbeth, originally his tenth opera and very much a ‘risorgimento’ work, complete with a nationalist chorus. It was written for the Pergola Theatre, Florence, where it was premiered on 14 March 1847 and it is in this original form that this performance is presented. This is the first official re-mastering and issue of the broadcast of 15 April 1979. Interestingly the same principals reprised the work at the BBC Proms later that year. These five recordings, and subsequent broadcasts, of the original versions of Verdi operas, were made under the aegis of Julian Budden then head of opera at the BBC. Budden is also known for his three volume ‘The Operas of Verdi’ (Cassell 1973, 1978 and 1981).

Macbeth was revised by Verdi for the Théâtre Lyrique, Paris, where it was first produced on 19 April 1865 after Verdi had spent most of the previous winter working on the re-composition including the required ballet. All the previous studio recordings have been of this later version, most featuring a mezzo-soprano as the Lady. In this performance Rita Hunter, the British Brünnhilde of her generation, sings the part. Only in Decca’s first recording of the 1865 version, featuring Birgit Nilsson, the international Brünnhilde of her generation, is a similar voice to be found on recordings of the complete opera. Those who have the preferred recordings of the later version featuring Shirley Verrett (DG ‘Originals’ under Abbado) or Fiorenza Cossotto (EMI under Muti) might at first find the steely timbre cutting through the orchestral textures a little difficult to get used to. They should persist because Hunter has some lower voiced richness too and brings insight as well as vocal clarity and agility to the part. This is particularly true of ‘Trionfai! Securi alfine’ (CD 1 tr. 17) the Act 2 aria that Verdi replaced with ‘La luce langue’ for Paris (CD 1 tr. 10 on the DG, tr. 20 on the EMI). That is not to say that Hunter is the perfect Lady Macbeth, there are moments of unevenness but her Act 4 ‘Sleep Walking Scene’ (CD 2 trs. 14-15) is as good as any on disc

The part of Macbeth himself has drawn all the great Verdi baritones and a goodly number have been privileged to set their interpretation on record, albeit of the later version. Warren (RCA), Taddei (Decca), Milnes (EMI), Cappuccilli (DG) and Bruson (Philips) are all distinguished Verdians with the part in their discography. To their number Tito Gobbi would have been added but for illness when he was substituted by the unidiomatic Fischer-Dieskau in Decca’s 1971 recording made in Kingsway Hall. Peter Glossop, the Macbeth here, and then at the very peak of his powers, would have made a far better substitute. Born 1928 in Sheffield, Yorkshire, he studied privately whilst working as a bank clerk before joining the London-based Sadlers Wells Opera Company as a chorister in 1952, becoming a principal a year later. He sang the major Italian roles with that Company, in London and on tour in the U.K., before making his Covent Garden debut in 1961. Glossop made a considerable mark as a Verdian in the ‘bear pit’ provincial opera theatres of Italy, (Parma, Palermo and Naples), where any non-Italian, particularly in this fach, was subject to stringent analysis, before debuting at La Scala in 1966. An extrovert performer he gave himself unstintingly to every role, always using his full-toned and powerful Verdi baritone in the service of the music. I consider myself to be particularly fortunate to have heard him in all the major Verdi baritone parts in his repertoire. Unfortunately the recording companies used him only sparingly and then in only one Verdi role (other than Rigoletto highlights in English) and that was at the behest of Karajan who cast him as Iago in his early 1970s Salzburg Otello. Never one to hide his light under a bushel this irked Glossop greatly, and I suspect will be commented on in his forthcoming autobiography which will, I think, make interesting reading. The bad news for Glossop admirers such as myself is that this 1979 reading finds him past his prime. The characterisation of the facets of Macbeth, his grasping at the prospects of the crown, complicity in murder and then disintegration and resignation to death are fully conveyed, but the voice itself is raw in patches, lacking the refulgent generosity of tone he always gave at his peak, and further aggravated by some uneven legato. It is a pity that this recording does not better represent the finest British Verdi baritone of at least the last sixty years. If not perfection there are many moments to enjoy such as the Act 3 scene with the witches (CD 2 trs. 3-7), the Act 4 ‘Perfidi ‘ and aria ‘Pietta, rispetto, amore’ and resignation to death (trs. 14-15 and 17).

Another stalwart of the UK opera scene of the 1970s was Kenneth Collins, here singing Macduff. He debuted at Covent Garden as Arturo to Sills’ Lucia and made his debut at New York’s City Opera in 1975, returning in 1978 to sing leading roles in Mefistofele, Rigoletto, Carmen and Pagliacci. His strong virile Italianate true tenor tone is heard to good effect in this performance (CD 2 trs. 9-10 ‘O figli, ... Ah la paterno mano’). Equally effective is John Tomlinson as Banquo; another British singer who came to enjoy a considerable international career and reputation as the Wotan of his time. In pristine voice he conveys Banquo’s inner reflections on the prophecies (CD 1 trs. 3-4) and then his fears for his son (tr. 9) and he does this with sonority and steadiness. The lesser parts are all well cast with the likes of Ludmilla Andrew, herself a Lady Macbeth, as the nurse. The conducting of John Matheson is not in the Abbado (DG) or Gardelli (Decca) class, but he certainly has more feel for Verdian line than Sinopoli (Philips) or Leinsdorf (RCA), all conducting the later version. However, this 1847 version is a ‘risorgimento’ opera, complete with a nationalist chorus; ‘Patria oppressa’ (Oppressed homeland’ –CD 2 tr. 8) and I longed for some orchestral passion here and elsewhere. The chorus hasn’t that ‘squilla’ of native Italians but they give a full and virile sound in a relatively lean acoustic. The chorus in particular would have benefited from more warmth and bloom. However, the soloists are set in a clear slightly forward acoustic; no false ambience around them, for which I give thanks.

The booklet provides a full libretto with translations in English, French and German. There are no artist profiles. It would have been helpful if the synopsis had been track-related and the track listings had indicated which role was singing. However, these are minor criticisms to set against the welcome opportunity to hear Verdi’s first intentions for this opera so well realised and presented.

Robert J Farr

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