An unpalatable experience: Macbeth on Naxos

Verdi: Macbeth ** 

Naxos 8.660259-60

naxos-macbethWhen the Ballet gets the longest applause of the night in a performance of Verdi’s Macbeth, you know you’re in trouble! So it proves on this release from Naxos of a live performance from the open-air Sferisterio Opera Festival in Macerata recorded in 2007. I’m sure if I had been there, it would have made for a pleasant summer evening’s entertainment, especially after a bowl of pasta and a few glasses of Montepulciano, but listening at home on an empty stomach proves an unpalatable experience. The recording was made by Dynamic, who specialise in live recordings, usually of rarer repertoire, so I initially wondered why they hadn’t released it on their own label. Then I gave the discs a spin.

The Act I Prelude is taken briskly, with little sense of foreboding. Daniele Callegari conducts what amounts to a pretty ordinary provincial orchestra rather well; I find his pacing generally sensitive to the singers with none of the fussiness which can occasionally infuriate in Giuseppe Sinopoli’s account of the score on Philips. (At times, Sinopoli can be revelatory, but at others it’s just too slow, a bit like Giulini’s Trovatore for DG.)

This is the 1865 revision of the score, the one which is usually performed, where Verdi reduced the heavy workload on the baritone. Normally, I’d lament the omission of “Mal per me”, Macbeth’s final aria as he expires on stage in Act IV, but not here, as the Macbeth of Giuseppe Altomare is undistinguished. Glyndebourne added the aria in their ‘tartan and caravans’ Richard Jones production in 2007.  Piero Cappuccilli gets to perform it (wonderfully) on Abbado’s DG recording and Muti allowed Sherrill Milnes to sing it as one of three appendix items from the original 1847 version which sadly have not made it onto the latest CD incarnations. Altomare’s voice is at the deeper end of the baritone spectrum, making it difficult to differentiate from Banquo in the Act I duet. Consequently, the top of his voice is a bit strained, especially at anything above mezzoforte, in a manner not unlike Leo Nucci. His vocal characterization can be quite effective but cannot begin to match the word painting Cappuccilli achieves, especially in Act I when he sees the dagger before him and in the ensuing duet with his Lady. Verdi wrote to Felice Varesi, his first Macbeth, describing the approach he desired here:

‘This is a most beautiful passage, poetically and dramatically, and you must put a lot into it! Remember that it’s night; everyone’s asleep; so that this duet should be sung sotto voce but in a hollow voice such as will inspire terror.’

Just listen to Cappuccilli and Shirley Verrett here – they are electrifying, following the dynamic markings in the score with precision. Altomare demonstrates a decent legato in “Pietà, rispetto, amore” but ranks below other baritones who have essayed the role. Sherrill Milnes, on EMI, is very good, if indulging in sobs in the voice on occasions, whilst Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose Verdi I don’t always find sympathetic, delivers a fine Macbeth on the deleted Decca set, despite over-emphatic diction highlighting rolling ‘r’s.

The main drawback to this Naxos recording however is the Lady Macbeth of Olha Zhuravel. Many readers will be familiar with Verdi’s instructions that his ‘Lady’ should not sound beautiful, but should have the voice of a devil. They may also be familiar with the sometimes wild, sometimes erratic soprano interpretations on disc of both Mara Zampieri (for Sinopoli) and Elena Souliotis (for Gardelli). Zhuravel has a voice which, sadly, doesn’t so much threaten to come off the rails as to career half a mile down the embankment. Her sour tone and wide vibrato make for a terrifying listening experience; the climax of “Vieni t’affretta” is off-pitch and the cabaletta’s coloratura is clumsily delivered.

If ‘Macbeth doth murder sleep’, then his Lady doth murder the sleepwalking scene. Zhuravel made her debut singing Turandot and also has Abigaille and Odabella in her repertoire and I’ve no doubt that she imbues the roles with plenty of drama, but I don’t think this is what Verdi envisaged. I have a good deal of time for Souliotis; yes, it is a wayward account at times, but is thrillingly sung at others. Measured against Zhuravel, she is a model of good taste! Zampieri can sound a bit mannered, probably in line with the approach Sinopoli takes, but also has impressive moments. The other recordings take the mezzo option, Shirley Verrett’s smoky, velvet voice emphasising Lady M’s sinister intentions, whilst Fiorenza Cossotto’s turbo-charged, imperious approach is awesome. Nobody’s going to mess with this Lady!

It’s a pity, in a way, that Banquo is murdered so early on in the opera, as the Russian bass Pavel Kudinov provides one of the best performances. He has a firm, rich tone and is suitably sepulchral in his aria, full of dark foreboding. Banquo is well sung on all the comparative versions I listened to, with perhaps Nicolai Ghiaurov’s rendition for Gardelli gaining the palm for his magisterial singing. Macduff has very little to do in the opera – a brief appearance after Duncan is murdered, a couple of banal numbers with Malcolm and chorus – but his aria ‘Ah la paterno mano’ is a crowd-pleaser, with a cruelly exposed recitative straight after the big chorus. Rubens Pelizzari has an attractive voice, not unlike Carreras at times, and strikes the right sort of plangent tone. Carreras, Pavarotti and Domingo all appear on disc (for Muti, Gardelli and Abbado respectively) in a role they would have been unlikely to have taken on stage.

Despite a menacing gang of assassins, the chorus is not impressive. The recording too often catches individual voices and the witches sound about as menacing as a gathering at a vicar’s tea party; I would have hoped for better from an Italian chorus. The trebles taking the roles of second and third apparition both do very well. There is plenty of stage noise, more so than in a lot of modern recordings of live performances.

Giuseppe Altomare (baritone) Macbeth; Olha Zhuravel (soprano) Lady Macbeth; Pavel Kudinov (bass) Banquo; Rubens Pelizzari (tenor) Macduff; Marco Voleri (tenor) Malcolm; Luca Dall’Amico (bass) Doctor; Alexandra Zabala (soprano) Lady-in-Waiting; William Corrò (baritone) A Servant/ First Apparition; Andrea Pistolesi (baritone) Assassin; Velia Moretti de Angelis, Valeria Cazucu (trebles) Second and Third Apparitions; Coro Lirico Marchigiano; Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana/ Daniele Callegari (Naxos 8.660259-60)

Cappuccilli, Verrett, Ghiaurov, Domingo et al, La Scala/ Abbado (DG) 415 688-2 (1976)
Milnes, Cossotto, Raimondi, Carreras et al, New Philharmonia/ Muti (EMI) 5 67128 2 (1976)
Bruson, Zampieri, Lloyd, Shicoff et al, Orchester der Deutsche Oper Berlin/ Sinopoli (Philips) 475 8393 (1984)
Fischer-Dieskau, Souliotis, Ghiaurov, Pavarotti et al, LPO/ Gardelli (Decca) 440 048-2 (1971)

This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia.

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