Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Three Macbeths

O speak not his name, if theatrical lore sayeth sooth, but there's no getting round it: I could have used 'Macbetto' for two of the three in question, Verdi's radically different operas of 1847 and 1865 which have been the subject of my last seven opera appreciation classes at the City Lit, but the Shakespeare is what it is (and we saw quite a bit of that, too, in the very curate's eggy Orson Welles movie, and the unmissable McKellen/Dench partnership of Trevor Nunn's intimately filmed production).

Actually I must just record that a funny thing happened during our City Lit screening of the banquet scene in the play. McKellen stares fixedly at Banquo's empty place in front of him - there's nothing there - and our DVD chose precisely that moment to freeze, only to leap to a ghostly image of one of the three witches. You can imagine that freaked me out a bit and I didn't want to go back and see if it would work properly a second time.

Amazement still sits on me at how much perfect music-theatre Verdi managed in the midst of his early operas (especially when you think of Attila, which I'd rather not, and I Masnadieri, graced at least by some excellent moments of darkness, either side of it). As apt, albeit in a less sophisticated way, as anything in Otello and Falstaff, are his genius, free-form telescoping of the 'Is this a dagger' speech as well as the duet which follows, recast a little for Paris (how Fuseli matches Verdi here)

and the concentrated mix of eeriness with unexpected pathos in the Gran Scena di Sonnambulismo.

Still, the greatest fascination rests with three of the four numbers Verdi completely replaced in 1864-5. First, he removed what he called 'an awful aria of the Prima Donna'. 'Trionfai!', Lady Macbeth's response to the short Act 2 exchange, isn't so very bad; though generic, it continues to characterise her vaunting ambition - but that's superfluous, since we've already had it twice in 'Vieni! T'affretta!' closely followed by 'Or tutti sorgete'. See what you think in the best performance I could find on YouTube (we used Rita Hunter in the BBC radio recording of the original version, not on great form either). Do I put myself beyond the pale with voice queens if I say I'd never heard of Olivia Stapp?

Performance regardless, there's no doubt that the replacement, 'La luce langue', is not only an improvement but one of the glories of the score in the orchestral colour which accompanies the paraphrase on Macbeth's 'Light thickens...Good things of Day begin to droop and drowse' and the, once again free, cabaletta section, with its pre-echoes of Eboli's determination and the mezzo's music in the Requiem. I thought Cossotto, on the extraordinary Muti set, carries out all the detailed injunctions in the score even better than Callas.

Passing over the Paris ballet for the supernatural hokum in Act 3 - which I love, especially as choreographed in Richard Jones's werewolfs-gimps-and-cooker version - the tweaks to Macbeth's scene with the seven kings and the duet which replaces his 'Vada in fiamme', perhaps even more extraordinary is what happens at the start of Act Four: the replacement of one rousing chorus for an oppressed country, which would have had extraordinary significance in 1847, with another still more profound yet written by the time Italy was a free nation. The original has those unisons blossoming into harmony which we recognise from Nabucco's famous Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, but with Macbeth's all-important minor seconds jabbing desolation into the music. We heard a wonderful performance from the Welsh National Opera Orchestra and Chorus, but this pale imitation is the best I could find on YouTube.

The major-key resolution is just too easy. Note how in the formally more complex, orchestrally richer replacement of 1865, Verdi postpones a possibly ray of light until the very final bars. Yes, this is great, deep music, a fine prophecy of the 'Lacrimosa' in the Requiem but standing with head held high in its own right.

That's probably enough for now, and extracting the complications of the rewrites to the final scene is beyond me here. But it's probably right that Macbeth's original death scene, 'Mal per me', should be stitched back into the revised, quicker resolution as it was at Covent Garden. There, incidentally, it provided Simon Keenlyside's one moment of glory, though recent news suggests we should never be too quick to judge when a singer's off form: the generous baritone has cancelled tonight's Wigmore recital owing to the death of a family member. So a tinge of guilt at a harsh judgment and my thoughts to him.

Anyway, I rather like the crude one-note trumpetings of the original battle, but the fugue as followed by the stirring final chorus is, as one of my students said, perhaps the most exciting curtain to any Verdi opera. The composer was as amused as anyone at possible responses to the news that he had used an academic form: 'A Fugue?...I, who detest everything that smells of school, and it has been nearly 30 years since I wrote one!!!'. And of course he wrote another right at the end of his musical life, in a contrasting spirit of huge good humour.

Well, I for one am sorry to leave Macbeth, even though I ran over on it by two weeks - which means there's less time for Massenet's Cendrillon, but that's probably as it should be. And it's not goodbye to the Scottish play yet as I have a DVD review copy of Rupert Goold's production with Patrick Stewart to watch for the Arts Desk*, and we're all gathering together for a free extra City Lit class so we can watch the film of Tcherniakov's Paris Opera production. And next year's six operas will be Weinberg's The Passenger, Puccini's Tosca, Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer, Dvorak's Rusalka, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and Britten's Billy Budd. Today is probably the last for getting in, as booking has just opened and we always fill the 32 spaces in double quick time. At least I hope that's the case for 2011-12 too. Download a course guide from the City Lit's website here.

*Now I have - the review is here - and it's imaginative but all over the place. No guarantee that a good theatre director will make the transition to cinema. Clodhoppers like Brook's Lear - would-be Russian style - and Lloyd's Mamma Mia prove the point, and I hear similar reports about Sam Mendes. Shame, because Goold's Turandot was a triumph in my books, and this is full of striking ideas.


David Damant said...

My theatrical friends say that the name of the Scottish play must never be said in the theatre - one can say it outside

The reason, they say, is that Macbeth was very popular, and a speedily sold ticket. So that if a play you were in failed to run and had to close Macbeth was brought on to fill the gap before the next play was ready. Bad news for you - if you heard the word "Macbeth" you knew that you were about to be let go. Hence the phobia about hearing the word in the theatre ( where you were working - but not for long)

David said...

I never knew that. And yet, of course, theatrical lore also has it that accidents and fatalities accumulate during runs of the Scottish play - and folk I know will testify to that.

Of course the only fatality about the Peter O'Toole Macbeth at, I think it was, the Old Vic was that it was so bad - so bad that it ran for quite a while on its terrible reputation. There's plenty of margin for awfulness, especially in the witches, who sound so risible on old recordings of the play.

David Damant said...

The late Patrick Ide, who was at one time or another everything in the theatre, had some money in the O'Toole Macbeth. Travelling there one morning. when of course there was no performance, the cab driver asked if Patrick had any connection with the play. On being informed that Pat was indeed involved, the cabbie asked whether it was as bad as the papers said it was. "I have to confess that it is" answered Pat. " In that case," was the reply, " I'll take the wife"

Howard Lane said...

We are now blessed by our local Ritzy cinema screenings of live opera and so far Claire has managed to squeeze in both Macbeth and Glyndebourne's Meistersinger. No mean feat with her busy work schedule.

I chose that hottest of Sundays to collect Carla and her many crates of books and stuff from Oxford and lost a few pounds if only in fluid...

We also enjoyed - in parts - ENO's Dream, we being Rowan and Luke as well for whom it was not an entirely suitable production but fortunately the unsuitableness went over their heads. They responded well to the school setting though and Pyramus and Thisbe whose mechanicals were exquisitely rude.

I missed Bottom's ass's head and wasn't entirely convinced by Willard White although he is remarkably spritely. Oberon's performance was superb. Claire thinks the promotional blurb calling the production "magical" defies the trades description act.

For me it all came right in the end, much as the play does, with the amazing explosion of colour by the RMs after all that unrelenting greyness, and the revelation of the lone silent schoolboy mooning around the set, and being orgiastically tortured, as Theseus recalling his own bitter sweet schooldays. In a way it was all a bit too knowing and seemed to be gilding Britten with layers of Henry James, William Golding, St Trinians and Tom Brown's Schooldays, but I wouldn't have missed it, and now we are all dead keen on seeing a more trad "magical" version.

David said...

Well, Howard, that C Alden MND HAS got everyone talking. I went thinking one size couldn't possibly fit all and perhaps overcompensated for finding that it more or less did. It's the most concentrated and evocative production I think I've seen at ENO for 20 years - see long, long Arts Desk review - and I thought the Act 2 coup for wearing out the lovers was one of the most discombobulating things I've seen in the opera house.

On the other hand I went again - this experience also on TAD as a 'buzz' piece - and found myself at loggerheads with J and two others. So it was three of us passionately in favour vs three v. disgruntled.

No, it doesn't tell the whole story; no, it isn't really very funny - RMs even less so second time around, and stalwart Willard is no comedian - but it does create a world and one that, I would argue, not only was central to BB's psyche but can be heard in the darker portions of this score. Which I thought was superbly conducted by Leo Hussain.

For a prettier MND that's still what the Germans call Regietheater, get the Robert Carsen production out on DVD (filmed in Barcelona, I think, though it was ENO's previous production of the opera). For really trad and lovely, you should treat the kids to the Glyndebourne/Peter Hall version, which is still looking great.

David Damant said...

As regards the blurb and the trades description act, I have when reading nearly every opera house blurb called to mind the words of Francis Bacon:

"Hyperbole is comely only in love"

Catriona said...

Reading this while listening to Das Rheingold live from Leeds on Radio 3 - weird.
However, as I read I was wondering if you had seen David Greig's play Dunsinane, a sort of sequel to Macbeth when it was on in London? I heard it on Radio 3 earlier in the year and it was finally performed in Edinburgh in May. It strikes me as having operatic potential, with the right composer.

David said...

No, Catriona, I haven't, though I remember reading about it and thinking how interesting it sounded.

Wondered what you as a Scot thought of the original attempts at real accents restored to the Orson Welles film? Risible in part, and Orson lapses into Oirish with the murderers, but he's certainly compelling and I'm glad it exists. Very annoying that there's one Scottish witch who doubles as Lady in Waiting and sticks out like a sore (pricking?) thumb in the Goold film.

Catriona said...

David - a Scots-accented Macbeth is a bit like playing Romeo and Juliet in 'justa one-a cornetto' accents. Most of the characters in Macbeth were not native speakers of any form of the English language, they spoke Gaelic. So, correctly, they do not speak a dialect of English in Shakespeare's play.
We don't know enough about the spoken Gaelic of the period to know whether there were social-class dialects, but given the relative classlessness of clan society, the spoken language may not have had the range of class dialects we find in modern forms of English.
Besides, we know Shakespeare was capable of writing in dialect when he thought it appropriate - think of Fluellen - so we should trust him when he doesn't.

David said...

"The Lady sings in Welsh" - I always liked that enticing direction in HIV.i. And the courtship scene in Henry V, for all its Allo Allo connotations, can be charming if done well.