Opera Scotland

Macbeth

Music
Giuseppe Verdi (born Busseto, 10 October 1813; died Milan, 27 January 1901)

Text
Francesco Maria Piave (revised in 1862 by Andrea Maffei).

Source
Play (1606) by William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

Premières
First performance: Florence (Teatro della Pergola), 14 March 1847.
Major Revision: Paris (Théâtre-Lyrique), 21 April 1865.
First UK performance: Manchester (Theatre Royal), 2 October 1860.
Revised Version: Glyndebourne, 21 May 1938.
First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (King’s Theatre), 25 August 1947.
Scottish Opera première: Edinburgh (King’s Theatre), 23 August 1976.

Background
Verdi was a lifelong enthusiast for the works of Shakespeare, and the climax of his career was reached with his last two operas – a great tragedy based on Othello and a life-enhancing comedy, Falstaff, derived largely from The Merry Wives of Windsor. Macbeth was his tenth opera, and was composed when he was the most popular composer in Italy and with a growing reputation in the rest of Europe. He was negotiating to produce a piece for London, however was understandably reluctant to risk the possibility of animosity from audience and critics towards a foreigner tinkering with the Bard. London therefore got opera number eleven, based on Schiller, while Macbeth started life in Florence.

It was successful at its premiere, but when he was approached over a decade later to provide a second work for Paris he set about revising the piece, which was to be performed in a French translation. The changes included the introduction of a ballet, essential in Paris, and several more adjustments – new arias and choruses and a substantial change to the finale. The music rejected was generally more traditional in style, and the newly composed sections added to the gloomy and mysterious atmosphere.

The reception of the new version was disappointing and it is only since the war that Macbeth has been recognised as one of his most innovative and effective works. Elements still criticised occasionally include the rather trivial march that greets the mimed arrival of King Duncan at Dunsinane, and more particularly the music for the witches – a large chorus replacing Shakespeare’s trio. Some objections have been made to the relentless jollity of this music, but it is entirely apt that the witches should be having a good time on the blasted heath. The music for the Macbeths, including the sleepwalking scene, is extremely effective, Macduff and Banquo have short but dramatic appearances, and the chorus has plenty to do, with the lament of Scottish exiles being every bit as memorable as the famous chorus from Nabucco.

Main Characters
Macbeth, a Scottish general who murders Duncan to seize the throne (baritone)
Lady Macbeth, his wife (soprano)
Banquo, a second general and friend of Macbeth (bass)
Macduff, leader of the revolt against Macbeth (tenor)
Malcolm, son of Duncan (tenor)

Plot Summary
The plot follows the play closely and is equally fast moving and dramatic.

RECORDINGS

DGG (2 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1976

Conductor: Claudio Abbado
Orchestra of La Scala Milan
Piero Cappuccilli (Macbeth), Shirley Verrett (Lady Macbeth), Nicolai Ghiaurov (Banquo).

It was a strange coincidence that the two leading Italian opera conductors of the day should choose to record Macbeth almost simultaneously in 1976. Both recordings are excellent and the casts are difficult to separate. The Scala recording featured a team which worked with Abbado in the opera house. Cappuccilli sings gloriously as Macbeth. Verrett was entering a period when she would sing a number of soprano roles including Norma and Tosca, so the fact that she had made her reputation as a mezzo is not a problem. Ghiaurov is a noble-voiced Banquo and the relatively short role of Macduff is in the wonderfully safe hands of Domingo. Abbado seems a natural conductor of Verdi – everything just sounds right.

EMI (2 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1976

Conductor: Riccardo Muti
Philharmonia Orchestra
Sherrill Milnes (Macbeth), Fiorenza Cossotto (Lady Macbeth), Ruggero Raimondi (Banquo).

Muti’s recording was not the result of any stage performances, but he was the chief conductor of the Philharmonia at this time and they made a lot of Verdi recordings together and he manages to make them and the Ambrosian Chorus sound like opera performers. His tempi are vigorous and dramatic. Milnes sang Macbeth frequently in the theatre, including at Covent Garden, and gives an excellent performance. Cossotto conceals her lack of stage experience in the role well, and has no problems with the high notes, even though she rarely attempted to sing real soprano roles. Macduff is sung by Jose Carreras in his prime, and he gives Domingo a run for his money.

OPERA RARA ORVC301 (2 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1979

Conductor: John Matheson
BBC Concert Orchestra
Peter Glossop (Macbeth), Rita Hunter (Lady Macbeth), John Tomlinson (Banquo).

In the 1970s the BBC made a series of recordings of five Verdi operas not previously available in their original form. Opera Rara have now released them with wonderfully informative notes, and they are all worth investigating to provide comparison with the composer’s later thoughts.

For Macbeth the original 1847 version seems in some ways more conventional – a big coloratura aria for the Lady, later replaced, and no ballet music for the witches. The ending is also much simpler. This recording is thoroughly enjoyable. Peter Glossop was an outstanding Verdi baritone and sang Macbeth many times. Rita Hunter did not sing Macbeth in the theatre, but sang several other Verdi roles during a long career which by the ‘70s was dominated by her performances of Wagner. John Tomlinson had not yet launched on the great Wagnerian phase of his career and sings Banquo with a natural ease and nobility. Kenneth Collins, an excellent Verdi specialist, sings Macduff. The New Zealand-born conductor, John Matheson, had plenty of experience conducting Verdi at Sadler’s Wells, Covent Garden and elsewhere, and it shows.

The Cast

Banquo
 a general in King Duncan's army
Child
 
Child Apparition
 
Doctor
 
First Apparition
 
Fleance
 son of Banquo
King Duncan
 
Lady in waiting
 
Lady Macbeth
 
Lady Macduff
 
Macbeth
 a general in King Duncan's army
Macduff
 Thane of Fife
Malcolm
 son of King Duncan
Murderer
 
Second Apparition
 
Servant
 of Macbeth
Third Apparition
 
Witch 1
 
Witch 2
 
Witch 3
 

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