A Macbeth to Celebrate

“This tragedy is one of the greatest creations of man!” thought Giuseppe Verdi as he began the long and often frustrating process of bringing his operatic version of Shakespeare’s classic to fruition.

Tracing a composer’s creative process can help us appreciate his finished work.

When composing this particular work, Verdi poured everything he had into his work. Following the Premiere of Atilla in 1846 Verdi had collapsed in exhaustion. His doctors insisted that he devote six months to nothing but rest before evening thinking about another opera.
But his commitments dogged his conscience. He had promised opera for London and Florence, so he began to work on them simultaneously, despite what the doctors told him. But to have enough energy to complete just one opera, Verdi abandoned the London project when it was only halfway finished, to give his full attention to the Florence opera.

The Florence opera would be Macbeth

The Italian theater impresario Guglielmo Brenna (1806-1882) brought to Verdi’s attention a young poet friend of his, anxious to break into the world of opera, Francesco Marie Piave (1810 – 1876). He sent some of his lyrics to Verdi and Verdi was impressed., Verdi also love Piave’s eagerness to please. So began one of the most fruitful collaborations in the history of opera.

Piave’s libretto derives from Count Andrea Maffei’s (1798 – 1885) prose translation of Macbeth. Every inch of the libretto was shaped, in detail, to Verdi’s liking, with no questioning allowed by the young and malleable Piave. The first product of their collaboration would be Macbeth. On September 5 Verdi sent Piave a synopsis.

Verdi insisted on obtaining the only baritone he believed capable of singing the title character- Felice Varesi (1813-1889), the prototype of the modern dramatic baritone. Once the baritone was secretly engaged Verdi worked closely with Varesi in the composition of Macbeth’s music. He insisted that Verasi attend more to the words than the music, to serve the poet rather than the musician.

Meanwhile, Piave waded through scores of notes and letters from Verdi asking for more verses and complaining about those already written. When Verdi asked for some lines for a danced chorus, Piave responded that the opera was scheduled for Lenten performances during which dancing was prohibited. Verdi simply told Piave to do what he was told to do.

Verdi would rehearse up to the last minute with Varesi and his Lady Macbeth – Marianna Barbieri-Nini (1818 – 1887), fresh from her triumph in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. Barbieri-Nini would later complain that Verdi rehearsed the breathtakingly original Gran scena e duetto, beginning with Macbeth’s dagger soliloquy, more than 150 times, and then called a final rehearsal moments before the public dress rehearsal. It was the custom of librettists to serve as the stage director. But Verdi thought Piave too overworked; he removed him from stage direction and shared the work with his producer, Alessandro Lanari (1790-1862).Verdi micromanaged every detail of the production, even writing to London to discover how the appearance of Banquo’s ghost was customarily staged.

He described Macbeth to Lanari as belonging to the “genre fantastic.”

Piave became Verdi’s whipping boy for whatever problem arose. Finally Verdi told him he intended to replace him with his old friend, the poet Andrea Maffei (1798-1885). Though Maffei rewrote only a few of Piave’s scenes, Piave’s name was completely absent from the first printed edition of the opera.
The premiere at the Teatro della Pergola on March 14, 1847, was an unqualified success. Thirty-eight curtain calls followed by an audience which escorted the creators to their hotel!

After its triumph in Florence, Macbeth made its way around the Italian opera circuit. Performances in Madrid and Vienna soon followed, and by 1858 it had even reached New York and Dublin.

Verdi dedicated the opera to Antonio Barezzi, the father of his late wife, who as ‘benefactor, father and friend’ had helped make possible his career as a composer: ‘Here, then, is Macbeth, which I love above all my other works, and for that reason deem it worthy to be presented to you.’

Macbeth premiered in France at the Theatre Lyrique on June 7, 1865, in a French translation. Since the Italian production, Verdi had changed some of his ideas about the opera. To cater to the French fondness for dance he added a ballet of witches. Piave was summoned to provide new verses. Verdi also eschewed the realism of the voice he had insisted upon for Florence. He ended up rewriting about one third of the opera for the French production. The new version has a new ending: Macbeth dies offstage while onstage the chorus sings a patriotic hymn to freedom from tyranny.

The French critics did not find the opera as successful as did the Italians. They thought Verdi unsuccessful in combining his old dramatic and musical aesthetic with his new ideas. He was derided for stylistic inconsistencies, and for the alleged triteness of the witches’ choruses. Conductor Gianandrea Noseda believes that, with Macbeth, “Verdi jumped musically 50 years ahead.”

Nevertheless , Verdi’s Macbeth stands as the first Italian opera to reflect the spirit of Shakespeare. Verdi often ignored the conventional forms of the1840s in unprecedented ways. The music of Macbeth is a continuous flow , unbroken by traditional arias or cabalettas. One critic even accused Verdi of not understanding Shakespeare!

Nevertheless Verdi’s Macbeth is part of the world’s operatic repertoire, with the 1865 most frequently performed, though sung in Italian and without the ballet. The 1865 Macbeth is the version presented now by the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Chicago had to endure may Macbeths before arriving at the wonderful production currently on display.

Chicago has had several productions of Verdi’s Macbeth.

A 1959 production was planned for Maria Callas but was played by a new soprano – 33-year-old Wagnerian Leonie Rysanek. 48-year-old Leonard Warren was her Macbeth, 35-year-old Carlo Bergonzi appeared as MacDuff , while Erich Leinsdorf conducted. The Max Reinhardt-trained Carl Ebert, a founder of Glyndebourne, staged the work, and Caspar Neher, a lifelong friend and disciple of Bertolt Brecht, designed it

In 1969 Lyric staged a Macbeth directed by Douglas Campbell, and designed by Peter Hall, on loan from the Dallas Civic Opera. Grace Bumbry was Lady Macbeth. The rest of the production “was a heterogeneous bore.,” according to Tribune critic Thomas Willis. The Macbeth, Gian Giacomo Guelfi, “spent far more time than necessary leaping to tops of tables and backing around the stage in order to keep facing the audience.”

In June of 1981 Ravinia offered a James Levine led production of Macbeth with 46-year-old Sherrill Milnes and 48-year-old Renata Scotto prior to her New York debut. Scotto has referred to Verdi’s Macbeth as “a tale of two splendid monsters, not so much larger than life as larger than death.” For Scotto, Lady Macbeth was “a woman with perverse, enormous and visceral love. And it is because she loves Macbeth that the futility of having made him king drives her to madness.”

That year  Ravinia offered yet another Macbeth, the 1865 version (without ballet music), featured 41-year-old Dame Josephine Barstow as Lady Macbeth. Barstow was an “unusually intense actress with a vibrant, flexible voice of highly individual timbre, capable of expressing the strongest emotions, and excelling in portraying troubled and distraught characters.” The 41-year-old Pennsylvanian Paul Plishka played Banquo, while 52-year-old Piero Cappuccilli starred as Macbeth. The production was borrowed from the Greater Miami Opera Association .Nicol Benois directed the action. John Von Rhein, in the Tribune, found Ms. Barstow possessing an “impetuous acting style that made Mrs. Macbeth seem less an obsessively ambitious queen than a demonic, neurotic schemer who is already half-mad at the start.” Director Nathaniel Merrill seemed of “the glorified-traffic-cop variety”

In November of 1999 the Lyric co-produced with Houston Grand Opera its first Macbeth since 1981 John von Rhein for Tribune thought Director David Alden presented a “Eurotrash production with the Macbeths as dysfunctional spouses at the center of a campy, creepy sitcom. The witches are dominatrixes who carry black handbags and wiggle like the Supremes in tight red leather dresses…”

The Macbeth was Franz Grundheber, a German baritone and Indiana School of Music graduate, and Lady Macbeth was Catherine Malfitano.
Von Rhein: “Grundheber owns the ideal baritone for Macbeth, full and open, rich and steady, yet able to make potently dramatic use of the many sotto voce effects marked in the score.”

Today’s Macbeth marks the beginning of the Lyric Opera’s new musical director’s tenure in Chicago. And one would be hard pressed to imagine a more thrilling debut of Maestro Enrique Mazzola.

We have enjoyed Maestro Mazzola in the pit since seeing him lead the Lyric’s 2016 Lucia di Lammermoor. Admiration grew as we witnessed lovely productions at the Metropolitan opera and Glyndebourne. Macbeth shows his great virtues. He is very intelligent, knowing that a libretto has its own rises and falls in action, and that the musical ebbs and flows must serve the dramatic action. His second great strength is his sensitivity to the artists he leads, vocalists and instrumentalists alike. They appear to love him in return. Joy radiates from him to those in the pit, behind the proscenium, and into the audience.

The icing on the welcome – maestro cake is the production elements provided by the stage director Sir David McVicar and his designer, John Macfarlane for scenery and Moritz Junge for costumes. We have loved most of Sir David’s productions – 2014’s La Clemenza di tito,2015’s Wozzeck, 2017’s Norma, 2018’s Tosca and Il Trovatore, and the wonderful Adrienne Lecouvreur of 2019. Previously I saw Mr. Macfarlane join him for Tosca and Mr. Junge for Norma.

But the production of their collaboration on Macbeth surpasses them all, beginning with the brilliant visual metaphor which dominates the action:
Throughout Christendom a church stood as a fortress holding off “the powers of this dark world, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” But when a church is officially “deconsecrated,” the vacuum created can draw in, and welcome, all manner of abominations, evils, lusts, ambitions, murders, and madnesses.

Seen dotting both urban and rural landscapes, as refashioned restaurants, condos, apartments, art galleries, schools, performance spaces, cultural heritage centers, antique shops, and all other manner of worldly configurations, the “repurposed” church is McVicar’s brilliant metaphor for a Western Civilization bereft of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. After millennia of proclaiming the Kingdom of God, humanity is presented on the stage, absent God, reduced to a sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, in a “reimagined” church.

The answer to the question, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” is powerfully on display in the Lyric Opera’s magnificent new production of Verdi’s Macbeth. It is simply one of the most magnificent opera productions we have ever seen.

Leading the way is Lady Macbeth, as played by the great soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, whose dominating performance confirms the believe that Verdi made Lady Macbeth the main character. Ms. Radvanovsky is one of a handful of dramatic sopranos in the world whose voice can fill any size space, while fine-tuning her volume to suit the dramatic moment. If she were not in the opera world, she would still be considered one of the finest stage actresses in the country. So to see her play Lady Macbeth is a great treat.

Her husband, the title character,is the Lyric debut role for Craig Colclough, who goes toe to toe with anyone who comes his way on stage. His encounter with Banquo’s ghost is particularly effective. His strong voice is  supple, modulating easily among the gamut of emotions the character experiences. A Lyric Opera favorite, Christian van Horn essays the role of Banquo with great panache and feeling. As Macduff Joshua Guerrero offered one of the evening’s highpoints, “Ahi la paterna mano.” Matthew Vickers Malcolm was all one could wish for the role. The audience appreciated his work with a round of sincere applause, unlike the good-hearted boos which greeted his most convincing Pinkerton with the Virginia Opera curtain call for their recent Madame Butterfly.

Attention must be given, and great praise to Nick Sandys for the edge of your seat stage combat, the most thrilling since B.H. Barry made his magic in the 2016 Romeo and Juliet. Under his leadership, Macbeth dies onstage, as in the 1847 version.

Equal attention must, unfortunately, be given to the inexcusably long set changes. Some rethinking on the technical execution of the scenic construction or the source of the fabrication is due, because a world-class opera company is expected to do better.

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