Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Met broadcasts Verdi's Macbeth

Today, Jan. 12, 2007, the New York Metropolitan Opera broadcast by satellite a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth (1847), based on Shakespeare’s play (about 1605), with Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. The Met’s link is this and more details on the pdf file. The conductor was James Levine. Lado Antaneli is Macbeth, Maria Guleghina is Lady Macbeth, John Relyea is Banquo, and Dimitri Pittas is Macduff.

The stage edition was set as if in the early 20th century, with pistols and even AK-47s. The story imagines a coup in England that, of course, could not have happened. A history professor sitting next to me commented that Verdi wrote this opera to make a political statement about the eventual unification of Italy (with Giuseppe Garibaldi).

The opera is in four acts, and takes some liberties with the stage effects, using a women’s chorus of witches, and some rather cute effects with oversized Christmas-like ornaments as ghosts. The “snow falling on cedars” in the last two acts produces more like a WWII effect.

The broadcast showed a lot of the backstage maneuvering between the acts, including some of the computer operations and quick costume changes.

The story starts with a “Song of Solomon” like relationship between Macbeth and his wife, with true passion, the kind that social conservatives want to see in marriage. But then Lady Macbeth imagines being queen and drives her husband’s morally inappropriate ambition, leading to the eventual political rebellion and even revolution (as in 19th Century Italian history), and the protagonist’s demise.

The music seems lightweight for the subject matter, although there are many choruses, and a couple of them anticipate the “Sanctus” and “Offertorium” music of Verdi’s Requiem (1869). There are plenty of bel canto arias, and the orchestral music does not seem as adventurous as in later operas or as in more modern European operas. (I think Britten is an interesting comparison, because Britten’s complete musical personality comes out in the operas (I saw “Billy Budd” in Washington in 2004 – and “Mahler-like” War Requiem, which I saw in Dallas in the 1980s (along with Peter Grimes) -- more than in any of his other major works. Another interesting comparison is Boito, whose Mefistofele is rather heavyweight – I heard it at the Washington Opera in 1996). The opera ends triumphantly and boisterously, yet the conclusion is hardly symphonic. The one really substantial orchestral passage in the opera is the "ballet suite" that accompanies the coven of "witches," which is happier in tone (with the great brass ensemble) and not exactly a "witches' sabbath" as in Boito (or in Berlioz's Symphone Fantastique).

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