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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Macbeth (1847, revised 1865)
Giuseppe Altomare (baritone) - Macbeth; Dimitra Theodossiou (soprano) - Lady Macbeth; Giorgio Giuseppini (bass) - Banquo; Dario di Vietri (tenor) - Macduff; Ernesto Petti (tenor) - Malcolm; Valeria Sepe (soprano) - Lady-in-waiting; Radu Pintillie (bass) - Doctor; Piero Ceffa (baritone) - Assassin
Schola Cantorum San Gregorio Magno; Piemonte Philharmonic Orchestra/Giuseppe Sabbatini
rec. Teatro Colon Coccia, Novara, 4-6 October 2013
Extras: interview with director Dario Argento
DYNAMIC Blu-ray 57689 [158.00]

The last rulers of dynasties often suffer from a very bad posthumous press. As far back as the days of the Roman Empire the successors of Nero, Domitian and Commodus entered with great glee into the business of rubbishing their predecessors, aided and abetted by contemporary historians. In later ages Richard III and Boris Godunov have similarly found themselves charged with all sorts of crimes by playwrights and historians alike. The successors of Macbeth on the throne of Scotland, the long-running line of Malcolm Canmore, entered eagerly into the same orgy of defamation. Whereas modern historians have sought with varying degrees of success to rehabilitate Richard, Boris and company, the degree of fiction that Shakespeare applied to the story of Macbeth left very little for later revisionists to fasten upon, other than to observe mildly that Macbeth ruled Scotland for seventeen years and was generally regarded as a successful king.

Modern producers who seek to present Richard III and Macbeth on stage and screen frequently seek to make the plots more relevant by updating them to modern times. While this can pay dividends in many cases, their efforts here fall somewhat wide of the mark. Dynastic wars of succession have been more or less extinct for over two hundred years now - the last spasms being the comparatively civilised contest between Bourbons and Bonapartes in nineteenth century France - and dynasties fall not because of rival claimants but because of more fundamental reasons such as defeats in war or revolutions from below. Under these conditions the last rulers of the old dynasty are more often condemned for ineptitude or weakness than because of any wickedness, real or feigned, that can be laid at their door. The problem is that Richard III and Macbeth are altogether a different sort of tyrant from the modern dictator, and that attempts to draw parallels between the mediaeval period and the present day ring essentially false. Not that this stops producers trying.

This production of Macbeth, for example, sets the action firmly in the twentieth century: in fact, during the First World War, on the grounds - as the producer Dario Argenta explains in a brief bonus item - that it was the bloodiest period of war in history. Well, one might contest that claim; but in any event the First World War, a perverted contest of misguided and muddled idealism, has absolutely no parallel at all with the period or the plot of Macbeth. We see the production straining to produce some relevance before the music even starts, with a group of soldiers carrying Macbeth off the stage to shouts of "Vittoria!" which then lead very strangely into the opening bars of the prelude and which have nothing to do with battle or victory at all. Nor is it at all clear what three naked witches - a number which derives from Shakespeare and has nothing to do with Verdi's choral treatment of them - are doing on a battlefield, let alone the presence there of Lady Macbeth. The producer explains in his introduction that he wanted to "do something new" - but what he does should at least have some reference to the music. Verdi was always concerned to find the right tone for his scores - the word 'tinta' describes his intention - and here this is totally betrayed.

Other productorial sillinesses abound. The three witches are dancers, writhing somewhat unconvincingly and lacking real menace. In the meantime their words, with their genuinely sinister import, are sung by a collection of anxious-looking peasant women who surround them. Surely the scene would have been more involving if the latter had not been so obviously present on-stage. Both Shakespeare and Verdi realised that the scene of the murder of Duncan would be more effective when it takes place off-stage, concentrating the attention of the audience on the nocturnal hallucinations of Macbeth and his wife. Here the killing is seen through a window, which not only flies in the face of Verdi's ultra-still music at this point but is simply less gripping in dramatic terms. The whole of this scene, by the way, takes place on the corpse-strewn battlefield with which the opera opened, which says very little for the standard of the royal hospitality chez Macbeth.

In Act Two Lady Macbeth sings La luce langue, clearly an interior soliloquy, straddling the prone Macbeth on the floor. The appearance of Banquo's ghost at the feast is handled ineptly - he simply strolls on to the stage, and then strolls off again, with not the slightest hint of anything supernatural about him. Nor is there anything very supernatural about the second scene with the witches. The apparitions are tamely realised, and the 'line of kings' is noticeable by their total invisibility, only Banquo appearing to reflect a non-existent line of descendants. Throughout, Argenta, a film director undertaking his first opera, shows remarkably little sign of willingness to engage the performers dramatically. The First Act finale is even preceded by a quite unmotivated movement across the stage by Banquo to complete a line-up of the soloists across the proscenium in the long-discredited old-fashioned 'stand and deliver' manner. When the chorus are singing, he treats them as an undifferentiated lump without any real interaction with what is going on around them. In the final scene, the Battle of Dunsinane seems to take place in Macbeth's drawing room. He is done to death while seated in his armchair, and Macduff's part of the proceedings is confined to hacking off his head after he is already dead - which makes comprehensive nonsense of the witches' prophecies. What on earth is the point of this sort of alteration?

Nor is the singing such as to entice the listener. Giuseppe Altomare as Macbeth seems to have difficulty sustaining a smooth legato, and his sotto voce singing is breathy and unsupported - a major drawback in a role where so much of the part is directed to be sung in a suffocated tone. His high notes are effortful and strained. Verdi admittedly stated that his Lady Macbeth should have "the voice of a she-devil", but he surely cannot have had in mind a performer like Dimitra Theodossiou. Her delivery is gusty, ridden with vibrato, far from accurate in her more agile passages, and showing a distressing tendency to sit on the flat side of more stratospheric notes. She reminded me very much of Elena Suliotis on an old (and rightly long-deleted) Decca LP set, and the comparison is not intended to be complimentary. At the end of her sleepwalking scene she delivers her final line - mercilessly marked by Verdi to die away on a high D - in a stentorian fortissimo. Giorgio Giuseppini is a sonorous Banquo, although he too shows an unwillingness to sing quietly. Dario di Vietri is more nuanced as Macduff, his unsteadiness on the last note of his aria unfortunate, but otherwise a voice to be reckoned with. Ernesto Petti as Malcolm matches him well in their duet; the other roles are taken adequately, no more.

The orchestra sounds under-manned in the string department, and the offstage banda which accompanies Duncan's royal entry sounds decidedly unregal. Although the booklet praises the conducting of Giuseppe Sabbatini, he is efficient rather than engaged and the delivery of some passages sounds very mechanical. The score employed is that of Verdi's Paris revision, with the ballet removed, but in this performance it sounds like early Verdi rather than the more solid tone one expects in a score of the composer's middle period.

Insofar as alternative versions of Macbeth are available on DVD, those who would look for some respect for Verdi's intentions and Shakespeare's period setting are probably best served by the old Glyndebourne production featuring some major stars in the making: the young Josephine Barstow as the Lady, and James Morris as Banquo, for example. The television sound is pretty dismal, but the performances are electrifying. A more modern 'take' on the score - also, as it happens, by an Italian film producer - may be seen in Claude d'Anna's production to a soundtrack conducted by Riccardo Chailly and featuring Leo Nucci and Shirley Verrett. Both of these DVDs are considerably better sung than the offering here, and also do much less violence to the 'tinta' of Verdi's opera. Only those in search of novelty at all costs should feel the need to investigate this video and even then there is not much here that is really innovative.
Paul Corfield Godfrey


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