Leonard Warren’s Greatest “Macbeth”

Macbeth cover

VERDI: Macbeth / Leonard Warren, baritone (Macbeth); Leonie Rysanek, soprano (Lady Macbeth); Jerome Hines, bass (Banquo); Daniele Barioni, tenor (Macduff); William Olvis, tenor (Malcolm); Carlotta Odassy, mezzo-soprano (Lady-in-Waiting); Gerhard Pechner, bass (Physician); Carlo Tomanelli, bass (Servant); Osie Hawkins, bass (Assassin); Louis Sgarro, bass (Warrior); Teresa Stratas, soprano (Bloody Child); Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orch.; Erich Leinsdorf, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube (live: January 2, 1960)

Leonard Warren’s Macbeth was his crowning achievement as an artist, a role into which he poured his 20 years’ worth of vocal acting experience to create an unforgettable character, just as his great predecessor, Lawrence Tibbett, had done in 1939 with Simon Boccanegra. Warren had also sung Boccanegra, in the early 1950s, but although he was very good in it he didn’t penetrate the character as well as Tibbett had or as well as he later did with Macbeth.

For 60 years, however, the recording that has represented this achievement has been the RCA Victor studio recording from 1959, and although the cast as a whole is very good on it, Erich Leinsdorf’s conducting lacked tension and drama. His tempos and pacing of the music were fine, but far too often in crucial moments—even at the very beginning of the opera—the orchestra sounded as if it were just going through the paces…you might say a good rehearsal but not a real performance.

As a counterpart to the studio recording, Sony Classical also issued a broadcast performance of the opera with the same principals (Warren, Rysanek, Hines and Carlo Bergonzi) from 1959. This performance is better than the studio recording in many respects, but overall it’s still not as good as this broadcast from January 1960—as it turned out, Warren’s last broadcast performance. Here, his Macbeth takes on the dimensions of a great tragic figure; everything that sounded OK on the studio recording and rather better in the 1959 broadcast sounds natural, unforced, and amplified in this stunning performance. Only Ludovic Tézier, in the new French-language recording on Dynamic, surpasses Warren’s achievement in this role.

As for Rysanek, she is thrilling and dramatic if not, to my ears, really the conniving, frightening harridan that Shakespeare and Verdi envisioned. For that, you need to turn to Fiorenza Cossotto on the later RCA recording with Sherrill Milnes as an excellent (but not transcendent) Macbeth, or going back further, Maria Callas in her 1952 prime. Nonetheless, Rysanek’s “La luce langue” will pin you to the wall, and she does a very fine job in the famed “Sleepwalking scene” despite not being as scary as Callas, Cossotto, or Silvia Dalla Benetta in the new Dynamic recording. By way of compensation, however, we have here Jerome Hines, one of the greatest and most underrated singing actors of his time, as Banquo.

When this performance was first broadcast, music critic Robert Sabin had the following to say in Musical America:

Absolutely transcendent were Leonie Rysanek, as Lady Macbeth, and Leonard Warren, in the title role. With sensitive collaboration from Erich Leinsdorf and the orchestra, they not only sang their solo arias magnificently but made such duets as the “Fatal mia donna!” of Act I, Scene 2, incredibly gripping.

I do not think I have ever heard a more consummate control of dynamics and of dramatic emphasis conveyed through intricate vocal figures than in this duet. What good fortune that this was broadcast, so that millions throughout the land could know what great singing is being heard at the Metropolitan today…

Mr. Leinsdorf obtained equally admirable results from the stage and the pit. He has made some changes (mostly to the good) in this season’s production. Acts I and II remain the same. But in Act III, he omits the scene between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, in which she confronts him on the heath after his second encounter with the witches. This is replaced by the slow section of the ballet music, accompanying the appearance of Hecate, which is played as a prelude to Act IV, and eliminates the third intermission.

The silly basket shields and posies in the battle scene, Act IV, Scene 4, have been happily eliminated. The curtain closes while the orchestra plays the battle music. The combat between Macbeth and Macduff is omitted, and Macbeth dies alone on stage. Then the final choral passage with Macduff and Malcolm leads to the end.

Thus you have an idea of the cuts and changes to the score, which actually strengthens it both musically and dramatically—yet another reason to prefer this performance over the studio recording and the previous (1959) broadcast. And the frisson of it being a live performance worked wonders on the orchestra and chorus. Everything that strikes the ear as stiff or wrong in the studio recording comes to vivid life in this broadcast which, interestingly, also includes some of Milton Cross’ original announcements.

Apparently this performance was only issued once, on Bensar Records (whoever they may have been), but is now out of print. Happily, some generous soul has shared their copy of it on YouTube. I have no idea how long it will be available there. My recommendation is to grab it while you can. This really is a Macbeth to treasure, the last great broadcast of the greatest dramatic baritone voice America has ever produced.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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