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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Macbeth. Opera in 4 Acts. (1847, revised 1865)
Macbeth - Plácido Domingo (baritone); Lady Macbeth, Ekaterina Semenchuk (mezzo soprano); Banquo - Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (bass); Macduff – Joshua Guerrero (tenor); Malcolm - Joshua Wheeker (tenor); Doctor, (bass); Lady Macbeth’s attendant, Summer Hassan (soprano)
Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus/James Conlon
Director and Co-designer. Darko Tresnjak
Co-Scenic Designer Colin McGurk
Costume designer, Suttirat Anne Larlarb
Lighting designer, Matthew Richards
Video Director, Matthew Diamond
rec. 2016
Sound Format LPCM Stereo. DTS 5:1. Aspect ratio 16:9
Booklet language English, Subtitles, Italian (original language), English, German, and French
SONY 88985403579 [2 DVD: 149 mins]

How many operas did Verdi write? The answer depends who you ask. Some years ago I heard Mark Elder suggest twenty-seven. Meanwhile I have seen the figure thirty-four suggested and argued. Certainly there are twenty-eight titles in the Verdi operatic oeuvre. It all comes down to the matter of re-writes. In the case of Macbeth there are two distinct versions with the same title, one the composer’s tenth opera composed for Florence and premiered in March 1847 and the second a major rewrite, complete with ballet, premiered at Paris’ Théàtre Lyrique in April 1865. The first version comes in the period of Verdi’s Risorgimento operas when he, and much of his music, stirred up Italian patriotic feeling. It is raw and vital, and whilst lacking something of the orchestral sophistication of the later version the choruses are vibrant, as in many of his works of that period and are present here.

Verdi’s second version came about as much by circumstance as planning. Verdi and his wife, Giuseppina went, as usual, to the more temperate climes of Genoa for the winter of 1863-1864. Whilst there Verdi was visited by his Paris representative, Léon Escudier, who informed him that the capitol’s Théâtre Lyrique had enquired if the composer would write ballet music for insertion into his earlier version of Macbeth for performance at the theatre. Later, when a formal approach was made, Verdi’s response was more than Escudier could have hoped for, indicating that the composer wished to undertake a radical revision, originally in French, of the opera he had written eighteen years before. Verdi’s proposals for the revised Macbeth included new arias for Lady Macbeth in act 2 with the conventional two verse Triofonai securo being replaced by La Luce langue (DVD 1. Ch. 16), its chromaticism in his later style. He also made substantial alterations to act 3 including ora di morte, a duet for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (DVD 2. Ch.6) as well as the additional Ballet, de rigeur for Paris, not included in this staging. In act four, Verdi rewrote the opening chorus Patria oppressa (DVD 2 Ch.7), added the thrilling battle scene and replaced Macbeth's death scene with the finale inno de Victoria (DVD 2. Ch.18) as Macduff reports killing Macbeth, to cause great rejoicing, and pays homage to Malcolm as king.

As General Director of Los Angeles Opera, and not unknown for wielding a baton there and elsewhere, it might be assumed that Domingo, former tenor supremo of his generation, would have expected to be seen on the podium rather than in the eponymous role. He had, after all, conducted when Los Angeles Opera first presented Macbeth in 1987. As we all know Domingo has been intent, for the past few years, to put his stamp on several of Verdi’s baritone roles. In my experience the venture has more often been an embarrassment to his reputation rather than an enhancement, his sometime baritonal tenor lacking the vocal range and heft that the great Italian master demanded of interpreters of the major roles he wrote for that vocal register. However, in the opening act Domingo, looking, at the start, like an unwashed Scottish medieval clan leader, is in the best baritone voice in terms of tone and heft that I have heard from him.

In so many Regietheater or concept stagings from Europe, I often end up frustrated at what I see and incline to label it in my mind as abuse of the music despite it often being associated with excellent singing. In this performance, the unusual, but imaginative, staging of Darko Tresnjak and his co-Scenic Designer Colin McGurk, along with highly evocative lighting effects drew me into the performance. Add the long tailed androgynous other worldly witches, in painted body stockings, cavorting around with the chorus providing vibrant singing from a balcony above, I was drawn into the opera in a way that I so often fail to be. The further good news from act one was the sonorous toned and well phrased singing of Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Banquo and, particularly, the masterly work of James Conlon on the podium.

Act two introduced me to Ekaterina Semenchuk, a voice new to me. A Russian mezzo widely admired in her own country as well as abroad and one who comes with a formidable reputation. She and Domingo have sung the work together elsewhere before this Los Angeles production and an easy histrionic cooperation was evident. Her vocal strength and acting reminded me of those formidable Italian mezzos of yesteryear such as Fiorenza Cossotto whom I was privileged to hear live. If Semenchuk is insufficiently Italianate in her strong and expressive vocal tone that is her only limitation. She sings and acts the role to perfection. I have not seen better for many a year. She makes a significant, well acted and well sung contribution in both the banquet scene and the act four sleepwalking scene (DVD 2. Ch. 12). Domingo, regrettably, is not able to sustain the vocal strength of his singing in act one through to the conclusion, (DVD 2. Ch. 16). There is one curdled note in act four as Macbeth faces up to the reality of his declining power. Joshua Guerrerro sings a plangent, well phrased and acted Macduff, and Joshua Wheeler is adequate in the smaller tenor role of Malcolm.

As the performance progressed the lighting effects, along with the vibrancy of the chorus and acting of the unusual witches, enhanced my enjoyment of this unusual staging. The fact that the costumes were in period mitigated any angst I might otherwise have had. As it was I was swept into easy acceptance and admiration and was able to immerse myself into the pleasures of the musical performance and the singing. Whilst Domingo does not have the perfect tonal depth of voice that Verdi envisaged in 1846 when it was created by Felice Varesi, who later also created Rigoletto, Domingo's committed acting is always welcome. The film will enjoy a place on my shelves alongside the old Glyndebourne performance with Kostas Paskalis and Josephine Barstow. Barstow adopts an occluded singing voice which Verdi wanted. Also caught on the film is the magical atmosphere for the passage of the kings. It remains in my memory from the stage performance as well as on film (review). A colleague greatly enjoyed the Covent Garden performance featuring Simon Keenlyside and Ludmyla Moastryska with Pappano on the rostrum (review). It was one of the early live transmissions to cinemas from that venue and is now available in Bluray and DVD in excellent modern sound.

Robert J Farr



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