VERDI: Macbeth (1865 French version) / Ludovic Tezier, bar (Macbeth); Silvia Dalla Benetta, sop (Lady Macbeth); Riccardo Zanellato, bs (Banquo); Giorgio Berrugi, ten (Macduff); David Astorga, ten (Malcolm); Francesco Leone, bs (Doctor); Natalia Gavrilan, mezzo (Countess); Jacobo Ochoa, bs (Assassin/Servant/1st Ghost); Pietro Bolognini, ctr-ten (2nd Ghost); Pilar Mezzardi Corona, mezzo (3rd Ghost); Teatro Regio di Parma Chorus; Arturo Toscanini Philharmonic Orch.; Roberto Abbado, cond / Dynamic CDS7915.02
Verdi’s Macbeth is rightly considered to be a flawed masterpiece. Roughly half of the opera is excellent, particularly the scenes with Macbeth and/or Lady Macbeth, but the scenes with the witches are pretty bad music and there are a few too many stop-and-sing-an-aria moments. Nonetheless, when the composer was asked to write a French version of his opera for Paris in 1865, he took the opportunity to revamp much of the score, which is why the good scenes are so good: they’re more mature Verdi. There are two recordings of the original 1847 version of the opera, but for the most part the later Italian performances, and most recordings of the work, are based on the 1865 revisions.
With all that being said, this is the first recording of the French version—in French. Of course, whether it’s sung in French, Italian, or Bulgarian, the bottom line is that you MUST have a baritone, soprano, bass and tenor who can present real characters and not just sing the notes, and in that respect I’m happy to say that all four singers here come through in that respect. From a purely vocal standpoint, however, soprano Silvia Dalla Benetta has some flutter in her voice and tenor Giorgio Berrugi just barely gets through his music with his strained instrument, but in Macbeth, as really in all of Verdi’s works, the focus and direction given to the music by the conductor is just as important, and Roberto Abbado delivers with a taut, urgent reading that encapsulates the essence of Shakespeare’s drama as well as Verdi’s music.
For those readers who don’t understand the difference between good, enthusiastic singing and real drama, however, a bit of background and explanation are in order. I’ve heard quite a few live and studio recordings of this opera, going back as far as the early 1950s and a German-language performance with Josef Metternich as Macbeth, and in my view only a handful of singers really “get” the music. The best Macbeths I’ve heard are Leonard Warren (even better on the January 1960 live performance than on the 1959 studio recording), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (one of his finest operatic interpretations on record), Sherrill Milnes and the baritone here, Ludovic Tezier. These four give you a nuanced and truly dramatic performance from “inside” the character and do so with excellent voices. Other baritones who have recorded the role sing it with energy, but energy alone is not an interpretation. As for Lady Macbeth, the best I’ve heard are Maria Callas, Elena Suliotis, Fiorenza Cossotto (far and away the most surprising interpreter of this role, and in my view the very best) and the soprano here, with honorable mention going to Leonie Rysanek in the 1960 live performance with Warren.
One of the interesting things about this French version of the opera is that, even more so than Don Carlo, Verdi managed to get the French translation to match the Italian rhythms of his music. Reading the liner notes, this did not come easily; on the contrary, he was afraid that he would miss the deadline for the initial Paris performance because the first libretto didn’t satisfy him. Fortunately, the opera director gave him a little more time, Verdi took a really deep breath, and managed to finish the revision on time. One of the things, other than the Act III ballet music, that did not survive the cut when he transferred this new music over to Italian was Macbeth’s final aria, which here has a chorus included. In the Italian version, it doesn’t.
Perhaps not surprisingly, however, the Paris performances of Macbeth were a bomb. The French audiences, used to sprightly tunes and lots of high notes and trills, didn’t know what to make of the opera and didn’t return to see additional performances. This wasn’t the case, however, with Verdi’s other French operas, Jerusalem (a revision of I Lombardi) and Les Vêpres siciliennes, which were hits because they had a lot more tunes that the people could hum on their way out of the theater. But part of it was that many of the French were getting heavy into Shakespeare at the time, and they realized that Verdi had truncated and rearranged the play to suit his music. Had Verdi opened up some of the cuts in the drama, both they and we would undoubtedly think more of this opera than we do.
Abbado’s conducting has bite and drive; in fact, and I mean no disrespect, his conducting sounds more dramatically “alive” than many of his father’s opera recordings, all of which were well and musically shaped but somehow always seemed to miss the essential underlying drama of the music. The opera moves at an almost relentless pace, not overly fast but with an urgency in every note and phrase that keeps the drama in the forefront no matter how rat-a-tat those Italian rhythms are, and for this he must be commended.
Indeed, Abbado, like Riccardo Muti in the Milnes-Cossotto recording, pulls the various threads of the score together to present a unified whole, which makes every second of this recording work, even when a singer (like our Macduff) is sub-par. One good example among many of what I mean is the march, which almost sounds like Italian party music, that suddenly emerges in the scene with Lady Macbeth (CD 1, track 8). There’s not much you can do with it other than just to endure it, but Abbado manages to make it sound like a lighthearted interlude that momentarily defuses the tense drama between Lady Macbeth’s lines just before it and Macbeth’s lines immediately following it. (Muti did the same, by the way.)
For those listeners who can never get enough of a great baritone singing at or near full voice, Tezier’s performance is bound to disappoint. He is a real artist who colors and shapes his phrases like a great lieder singer. Yes, he does sing “out” when the music calls for it, but this is a real 3D interpretation of Macbeth. Were he just a speaking actor and not a singer, you could place his performance on the level of the greatest actors of the past 40 years such as Klaus Kinski or George C. Scott. It’s even more nuanced and more dramatic than Warren’s or Milnes’ Macbeth, and that’s going some.
Indeed, one of the most interesting things about this recording is that it feels like a live performance, and you get so caught up in the dramatic projection of the libretto that you scarcely notice that it’s in French and not Italian. Would that we had a French-language recording of Don Carlo this good…but we don’t.
After the witches’ scene at the opening of Act III, we get the mandatory ballet that the French public liked so much. Although I like ballet very much, I’ve always felt that a ballet fits into an opera about as well as a baseball game. Verdi, indifferent to all such ballet music with the sole exception of the Triumphal Scene in Aïda, wrote a piece of junk, as I expected he would have, though it’s lively enough to appeal to the masses.
Dalla Benetta’s voice sounds thinner in the “sleepwalking scene” than elsewhere, which isn’t too good, but her dramatic expression is spot on. Actually, the addition of the chorus to the end of Macbeth’s last-act aria adds something in terms of musical completion if not necessarily being a real dramatic coup.
Even admitting the vocal flaws of Dalla Benetta and Berrugi, this is a performance in which every single cast member pours their whole heart into the music, with the result that the end product is simply electrifying. Really, you have to hear it to believe it. It almost comes across as a dramatic cantata based on the Macbeth story, and if you approach it with that angle in mind you’ll find it rather satisfying as a dramatic conception if not really ideal. If nothing else, a baritone who can give the likes of Milnes, Fischer-Dieskau and Warren a run for the money in this role needs to be heard.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)
Return to homepage OR
Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music