Posts Tagged ‘Verdi’s Macbeth’

I have to be honest: I have listened to Plácido Domingo in a Verdi role for baritone (as Simon Boccanegra in Berlin) and did not leave the Staatsoper wishing for more: although he had the low notes, his voice – miraculously, truth be said, sounded just like in the days when he was billed as a tenor and I find this puzzling. Also, Verdi knew that the baritone voice acquires a certain edge in the highest reaches of its range and used it for dramatic purposes, a device largely lost in a tenor’s voice (even in a “senior” tenor’s voice), pretty much in his comfort zone in a high f or f#. But I am in LA and I like Verdi’s Macbeth. I cannot say if my negative disposition had the effect of low expectation on my judgment, but – to my surprise – I found the experience more convincing this time. First, it is amazing how firm and healthy his voice is at his age. This might seem a trivial comment, but, no, Macbeth is not an easy role, both musically and scenically, and Mr. Domingo was able to offer an all-round satisfying performance in it. First, after so many decades on stage, he knows where his strengths lie: his Macbeth is not driven by ambition, he is not driven at all. In his passiveness and spiritual exhaustion, he comes across rather as a depressed man given a last chance. Vocally, this is achieved by the very disadvantages that marred his Simon Boccanegra for me: the roundness and ease in the part’s high-lying passages stand for an impression of apathy; the lighter tonal quality made this Macbeth less authoritative than a Cappuccilli or a Bruson. In act IV, he did seem a little bit physically tired, and he did use that too to show the character’s sucididal drive: the only drive he had left. All that said, as much as I respect what this venerable singer has done here, this was a sucess “everything considered”: a real Verdi baritone would have provided all the thrill this performance desperately needed.

For a mezzo in a tricky soprano part, Ekaterina Semenchuk was surprisingly unfazed by what she had to do. It is true that  she needed slower tempi in florid passages, but she never seemed less than confident about what she had to do. Although her self-assurance came dangerously close to predictability, she had a card or two hidden under her sleeves: such as a high-strung repeat of her toast in act II or a Sleepwalking Scene painted on a broad tonal palette and crowned by stunning mezza voce effects. A singer as gifted and reliable as Ms. Semenchuk should be an asset in every ensemble. However,  she is hardly a crowd-puller as Shirley Verrett or Fiorenza Cossotto used to be in this repertoire. If I can guess the reason, I would bet on: a) her high notes, easy  as they are, do not truly blast in the auditorium as these formidable ladies used to do; b) she is not truly an electrifying actress, but rather bureaucratically strikes some grand poses now and then. Also, although her vowels are quite dark as one would expect in a Russian singer, she has relatively clear diction. Nonetheless, her delivery of the text can be a bit unspecific. Curiously, her reading of the letter in act I was really effective.

Roberto Tagliavini’s velvety tonal quality and seamless legato made for a noble and expressive Banquo. A beautiful performance. Arturo Chacón-Cruz took a while to warm, but was up to his big aria, even if his tenor is too often fluttery and also emphatic in his high notes.

This is my first visit to the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion and I cannot say if the acoustics or the orchestra is to blame for the “dynamic range compression”-feeling I had during the whole afternoon. Whenever one expected the surge in volume in big concertati, I had the impression that intensity would not build up because the orchestral sound seemed basically recessed. Although this could be helpful to his cast, there were scenes that seemed a bit empty without a full orchestra to challenge these singers. Other than this, maestro James Conlon seemed fully in charge: tempi were flowing, accents were impetuous and he seemed keen on rounding all edges. He certainly listened to Riccardo Muti’s recording – and that is a good thing – but if I had to choose a word to say what was missing today this would be: edge. This is Macbeth, there is passion, murder, betrayal, ghosts, war on stage! I should add that the house chorus (in spite of lifeless Italian pronunciation, a serious drawback for the episodes with the witches), is very well balanced and smooth, the basses particularly impressive.

Darko Trenjak’s production is a bizarre affair: the single sets look as remains from the original Star Trek series, but the costumes are supposed to look “traditional”, although they are stylistically inconsistent. The witches are represented by a group of demons who look like extras from the Broadway version of The Lion King. They are supposed to be funny too, a dubious advantage in a performance of Macbeth. I could have put up with that if there had been some Personenregie to speak of. Also, the banquet in Act II was alarmingly ineffective, Banquo’s appearances lackadaisical and the lighting effects predictable and uncreative.


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I have to confess: this is not the first time I have seen Robert Carsen’s new production of Verdi’s Macbeth. Last time, the experience was so uninspiring that I simply did not feel like writing about it. A little bit less so this time. The staging, of course, remains the same: Scotland is here a military dictatorship, the witches are cleaning women (with brooms of course…), Lady Macbeth is murdered execution-style and, in the end, a new dictatorship is established. The approach itself is interesting if not original, but sometimes one feel that the stock of ideas was a bit low. Lady Macbeth paces up and down and fidgets with bedclothes while singing her opening arias; the king’s murder is shown onstage, making the Macbeths discussion about going inside and outside his room difficult to follow, and the director finds it important that we watch Lady Macbeth dress and undress on stage. Something similar happens with the scenery, when pieces of furniture move about by themselves through the stage for some clumsy effects (choristers checking to see if they are on their way, props that land on the wrong place – this evening the baritone had to kick his bed in order to make way). All this might sound picky, but the point is – if this is going to be a “traditional” staging, one expects realism; if this is going to be a revisionist staging, one expects a concept. Here one would be left wanting for either of them.

Conductor Ivan Repusic compensated for the blankness on stage by a most powerful account of the score. To write that the house orchestra was in great shape is only telling part of the story – these musicians could find really harsh, dark, menacing sonorities, followed the conductor’s forward-moving beat with animation, everything projected drama and intensity. It is most commendable that the young conductor knows the art of balancing the sounds from stage and the pit so adeptly:the orchestra commented the action powerfully and produced full sonorities without saturating the aural picture in which singers’ voices would fit in rather than run over. Repusic knows singers’ necessities and could attend to them in a musically coherent way. For example, in order to help the soprano in her florid toast song, he gradually slowed down the pace while making accents more incisive only to pick the tempo giusto with renewed energy – no one would think of it as other than a Sinopoli-like expressive gesture.

I am not sure if Liudmyla Monastyrska is the Lady Macbeth of my dreams – but I would blame rather Verdi’s impossible writing than this valuable Ukrainian soprano’s abilities. Her big dramatic soprano develops from a solid low register, well-knit into a warm middle register that blossoms in a truly flashing high register, with acuti that pierce through the auditorium and probably further away in the Bismarckstraße. Her coloratura is only decent (she tackles her brindisi with a generous use of staccato) and her mezza voce may sound bleached and smoky, but let’s be frank: how many dramatic sopranos actually do all this?! Anyway, I am curious to hear her in other roles – Aida? – probably more suited to her temper. Here she seems a bit trying too hard to be formidable and bossy – and the evil laughs are a no-go.

Thomas J. Mayer, on the other hand, has no problem with “letting it rip” – he is always ready to let it all out, even when he is way beyond his vocal limits. His is a more forceful than voluminous voice and probably a bit on the low side for Verdian roles. In order to keep with the demands of the part of Macbeth, he has to sing on his 100% most of the time and sometimes is off steam. When this happens, one can feel the effort in emphatic phrasing, short on legato and tonal sheen and alarming limits of “acting with the voice” to avoid some testing passages. However, when he is able to gather his resources, as in Pietà, rispetto, amore, he offers truly exciting singing of impressively dark hue up to his extreme top notes. It is a pity that the role of Banquo lies too high for Ante Jerkunica, for, barred the colourless high notes, his singing is simply faultless in richness, volume and musicianship. I am glad to see how Thomas Blondelle, a member of the ensemble, is developing into big roles. The tone lacks Italianate squillo, but his tenor is proving to be beefy enough and one must praise this Belgian singer for his understanding of Italian style. Finally, the chorus must be praised – especially the women. The Italian text in the witches’ choruses are always difficult for foreign singers (as one could hear tonight), but they certainly got the spirit and sang with raw energy – and acted very well too.

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Peter Mussbach’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth for the Staatsoper unter den Linden is almost 10 years old – and one can see that. It looks decidedly worn out, frumpy and quite depressing today. I wonder if it had looked really well in the past. It is a very geometrical/basic-colours production with a (very distant) flavour of Japanese theatre and a (self-defeating) touch of Wieland Wagner (I mean self-defeating, because W.W’s productions had no unnecessary gestures and features, as this one has in plenty).  More frustratingly, some attempts of creating an eerie atmosphere look just childishly funny.  Is it time for a new production?

In any case, the shortcomings of the theatrical aspects of this staging are more than compensated by the superb playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin, which offered absolute clarity, accuracy and richness of sound.  Conductor Julien Salemkour’s approach was a bit kapellmeisterlich and you felt that tempi sagged a bit, but the beauty of the orchestral sound did not make you impatient about the conductor’s lazy pace. By its final contribution, the Staatsoper’s chorus offered a solid performance, but – as often – the witches’ choirs seemed well-behaved and unidiomatic*.

The famous Verdian quote about Lady Macbeth needing a rasp, dark voice has been used as excuse for many inadequate performance. It is obvious that a pretty voice does not work for this role, but an ugly voice is no excuse for poor technique. Sylvie Valayre is all-right an intelligent singer, but her manipulations to produce a “dramatic” voice robs her phrasing of all spontaneity: her diction is very unclear, her gear changes are quite clumsy, her sense of pitch is not always reliable (although she generally hits her high notes correctly)… I was going to say that the sound is the opposite of pretty, but that could be intentional. She cunningly lightened her tone for the brindisi and, for the first time, her coloratura was more or less a tempo. What is beyond doubt is that she is a good actress. It is a pity that her long experience with the production had a perverse effect – the spirit behind the flash is gone and a great deal of the gestures blocked in rehearsals held loooong time ago seem pointless, especially in her opening aria. On the other hand, Vladimir Stoyanov has a truly full-toned Verdian baritone. Although the higher end of his range is not as forceful as the rest of his voice, his phrasing is so musicianly, spontaneous and pleasant that he cannot help sounding  convincing in this repertoire. Christof Fischesser’s rich and dark bass is tailor-made for the role of Banquo – I hope to hear him again in the future. Stephan Rügamer’s tenor, unfortunately, is not Italianate or flowing enough for La paterna mano – it was a reliable if not ingratiating performance nonetheless.

* I’ll be writing soon about the witches’ chorus in Macbeth.

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Director Dmitri Cherniakov has written that, for a long while, he had understood nothing in Verdi’s Macbeth.  Judging from his staging for the Opéra de Paris, I wonder how much progress he has made. It seems that the Opéra Bastille has a tradition of mixing opera and internet – always for dismal results.  This time the stage is covered by a screen on which we can see something like Google Earth showing a contemporary suburban neighborhood where Macbeth seems to be some sort of mayor. Why does he wear an uniform or why would he have an army at his disposal – those are questions left for our imagination. In any case, we are shown the same The Sims-like images of Macbeth’s house and of a square where poor people apparently live in what looks like dog houses.

It seems that the Macbeth plot has been reduced to a burgeoisie vs. proletariat (yes, I know – so last-century…), but setting the action in a bainlieu does not make any sense. First of all, high politics are rarely done in bainlieues. And Macbeth involves state ceremonies and a coup d’état. Second, proletarians and bourgeois rarely live at the same neighborhood. In any case, low-income families in European urban areas tend to live in crowded apartment complexes and not in dog houses. Third, why  would the Macbeths kill people for… nothing? After Duncan’s death, they live at the same shabbily decorated house (they are not even allowed a dining room for their dinner-parties), wear the same frumpy clothes and have the same old and tacky guests. To make things worse, the supernatural elements of the plot are altogether deleted from the story – apparently the proletarians have a collective power of foreseeing things, for anytime Macbeth appears at their dog-house square, the chorus have always new forecasts to give.  Ah, I leave the worst for last – since the Macbeths’  living room is too small, there is no space left for choristers. But you can still hear their voices from… the beyond? I was waiting for the moments when Macduff would say Ihr Unsichtbaren saget mir, lebt denn Duncano noch? Also, when the presence of a soloist on stage does not go with the director’s designs, he or she is heard from backstage through a microphone…  It is said that, when a staging is really bad, we say good thing about the costumes and sets. But not here – Mr. Cherniakov has also created them and, if I were Lady Macbeth, I would kill him for making me look like a hag.

All in all, Violeta Urmana must be a very gracious person. She tried to hold her dignity together while doing magic tricks (this seems to be a new cliché in Regietheater) or singing her Sleepwalking Scene in untidy white pijamas. Although she has dealt quite commendably with Lady Macbeth’s tricky fioriture, trills and dramatic high notes, the role is so distant to her personality that she cannot help sounding unconvincing.  Her best moment would be a high d-flat-less Sleepwalking Scene, sung without any hint of craziness but abounding in rich warm velvety phrasing. Stepping in for Carlos Álvarez, Greek baritone Dimitris Tiliakos has a plausible voice for Macbeth, with a hint of Renato Bruson but too often off-focus in its high register for comfort. As he had little leeway, his performance tended to the monochrome. Unfortunately,  Ferruccio Furlanetto was not in his best voice – but that did not prevent him from offering the most spontaneous rendition of the text (in his native language, an advantage not shared by the soprano and the baritone). The audience’s favorite was, however, Stefano Secco, whose bright tenor and ardent delivery made for a young-sounding Macduff.

It seems that conductor Teodor Currentzis has in Paris the reputation (or rather the notoriety) of being the poorman’s Sinopoli. Although his tempi are always faster than the ones adopted by the late controversial Italian maestro, both do share the fondness for highlighting hidden niceties in the score at the expense of general coherence. I found his beat often whimsical but I tend to view Macbeth as a conductor’s score and it is always refreshing to have someone with ideas rather than a traffic cop on the podium. Nevertheless, all his curiosity did not help him to produce true excitement in the opera’s great ensembles if we are not speaking of sheer loudness.

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