Verdi : MacbethBerlin, 1998 (Audio)
Director: Vladimir Jurowski
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Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play about hallucinations: the text, though stated with triumphant clarity, is surrounded by a penumbra of variants: first thoughts, second thoughts, restored erasures and cross-outs, smudges unsmudged where possible, alternative versions proposed by censors, stage directors, conductors, scholars, and fools.
Indeed to read the critical notes is to follow with amazing detail Verdi’s creative process, as he charges along—carelessly notating his ideas, writing on the wrong stave—then reconsiders. But the reconsiderations themselves tend to be imperfectly written, so the text of the opera, especially in certain details of phrasing and slurring and accentuation, remains to some extent liquid.
Opera scores are always hypertexts and hypotexts, incomplete and overcomplete, demanding the performer’s whim, and subject to the performer’s whim even against the composer’s wishes; but here we have, it seems, every possibility that Verdi considered, from the solidly determinate to the conjectural and rejected. Various Macbeths peer out from beneath the score’s main image, like the sortileges of kings that recede from Banquo, who holds a mirror, because we always stare at our own image whenever we stare at a score.
The major alternative to the 1865 Paris Macbeth that we all know, and many of us love, is of course the 1847 original.
A great deal of information on the 1847 has been readily available, from the Dynamic and Opera Rara recordings and from Verdi’s “Macbeth,” ed. David Rosen and Andrew Porter, the indispensable companion, which prints long excerpts from the 1847 vocal score, along with source studies and reception history.
In Verdi’s day the 1847 version was a hit, the 1865 much less so; for much of the last century the opera has often been performed in a slightly mixed version, mostly 1865, but with Macbeth’s 1847 death solo Mal per me spliced into the last act. But there is a case to be made for acquainting audiences with both of the pure versions, and I hope that the fortunes of the earlier text prosper under this new stimulus.
The 1865 version is more spacious, sprawling, operatic. If you feel that Macbeth is a claustrophobic, punishingly thrusting, maniacal thing, a drama in which the walls keep closing around, a study of folie à deux, a play of pit and pendulum, then 1847 is the more Shakespearean: the noose always feels tighter. This difference is exactly comparable to that between Gluck’s original Orfeo ed Euridice of 1762 and its looser, longer, more recognizably operatic revision, Orphée et Eurydice; and I think that Macbeth, like Orfeo, is one of the great reform operas.
The greater economy of the 1847 version can be seen in many ways, in matters both large and small. For an example of a large matter, there is the substitution of La luce langue (Light thickens) for Trionfai! (I have triumphed) near the beginning of the second act—Trionfai! is full of wide leaps, cackles and gloats, as if Lady Macbeth were herself playing the role of a witch. She notes that the murder of Duncan is meaningless unless the throne is secured by more crimes: the most salient line is la regal corona è nulla, se può in capo vacillar! (the royal crown is nothing if it totters on the head). Verdi went to some effort to illustrate this line as exactly as possible: the last syllable of vacillar vacillates wildly into staccato coloratura; and the word nulla is given astonishing stress, losing its balance over a minor second, or plunging down a fifth or seventh, or sustained for two and half loud bars. Here the nullity at the heart of Lady’s triumph is graphic. In the 1865 revised version, Verdi replaced Trionfai! with a far more memorable aria, La luce langue, but there is a case to made for retaining Trionfai!: its very vulgarity aligns Lady with the “trivial” witches–Verdi called the witches triviali, ma stravaganti ed originali (vulgar, but bizarre but original). Trionfai! suggests the coarseness of sin and the untenability of vicious success; and the drugged, effortful, queasy quality of La luce langue may suggest an elderly duchess with a hangover more than a medieval queen lusting for more blood.
The singer of La luce langue is already baffled, almost sleepwalking through her own victory; the hollowness is too explicit here.
For an example of a small but telling matter, I turn to a short passage in the great first-act duet. In both versions, Lady Macbeth mocks her husband by quoting his own tune back at him: Macbeth tells her of the voice that accuses him of murdering sleep, avrai per guanciali sol vepri, o Macbetto (you will have only thorns for a pillow, O Macbeth), and Lady Macbeth suggests that the phantom voice was really saying Sei vano, o Macbetto, ma privo d’ardire (you are vain, O Macbeth, but not bold enough); Lady recasts Macbeth’s B-flat minor phrase in a garishly cheerful B-flat major–a parody that displays the effect of psychic intimacy that Lady is trying to achieve, as if she were a second point of view inside Macbeth’s skull, offering alternative interpretations for the same event. But in 1865 Verdi altered Lady Macbeth’s vocal line to make the quotation freer, more flamboyant, less recognizable; in 1847 Lady Macbeth repeated her husband’s tune with very little alteration, as if she were little more than a transposing parrot. In the earlier version the Macbeths have little distance from one another; the stultifying psychic closeness of the murderers is more apparent. It is clearer that they are playing a mirroring game with one another, just as Otello and Iago play in Otello:
Iago. Dassenno? (Indeed?)
Otello. Sì, dassenno. Nel credi onesto? (Do you think her honest?)
Otello. Che ascondi nel tuo core? (What are you hiding in your heart?)
Iago. Che ascondo in cor, signore? (What am I hiding in my heart, lord?)
Otello. “Che ascondo in cor, signore?”
From onesto on, these phrases all begin with the same three notes—it is not easy to tell which is the singing coach and which the slow-witted pupil, but the audience knows that Iago, usurping Otello’s voice, is calling the tune. Temptation scenes play in Verdi’s head as a form of echolalia.
For another example of the special pleasures of 1847, I turn to the famous little phrase Tutto è finito! After Macbeth kills Duncan, he returns to his wife, “as if choking,” he announces Tutto è finito! (All done!) to a simple minor-second figure (often scale degrees ^5-flat^6-^5, but sometimes transposed to the tonic or the mediant), at the threshold of recognition as an epigram. As many critics (starting with Abramo Basevi in 1859) have noticed, Verdi will construct a number of important figures along identical lines: we can hear Tutto è finito in Macbeth’s description of the voice that says Macbeth doth murder sleep (Allor questa voce); in the opening of the great choral lament in the finale to the first act (Schiudi, inferno): and the first three bars of the prelude to the second act, obviously recalling Tutto è finito, note for note; and even the words Una macchia (a stain) in the sleepwalking scene, a subtle recollection. In the 1865 version, the accompaniment to the chorus of Scottish refugees, Patria oppressa, is full of intricate traceries of such figures. Gary Tomlinson offers an exceptionally full catalogue of these Tutto è finitos of the 1865 text in his Metaphysical Song: An Essay on Opera, pp. 96-99.
But the 1847 version is still more obsessed with the Tutto è finito epigram: for example, in the first setting of Patria oppressa the vocal line was itself based on a rhythmically charged figure (scale degrees ^3-^4-^4-^3), dripping the same sort of blood as the previous examples. The apotheosis of the Tutto è finito epigram occurs in the final scene of the 1847 version, Macbeth’s death solo Mal per me, in which the orchestra turns the scale-degree 5-flat 6-5 figure into a hangman’s continuous drum-roll—the development of the epigram-figure, at once subtle and abrupt, anticipates certain procedures of Otello, written long afterward. This little figure is the music-icon of the stain that can’t be washed out–and since in a tragedy falling minor seconds, the basic figure of desolation since the days of Monteverdi’s stile molle, are likely to be everywhere, Verdi teaches us to read them as an omnipresence of blood. Verdi spatters his score with incriminating spots.
But perhaps the most intriguing of all revisionist versions is the Operatized Macbeth that Léon Escudier, the impresario of 1865, hoped to coax Verdi into writing. It was clear from the beginning that Macbeth was singularly unsuited to become an opera because it lacked a plausible role for a romantic tenor; throughout his life Verdi insisted that the lead tenor, Macduff, was not to be considered an important role. But Escudier was determined to find some way of justifying the attentions of an expensive tenor. He exercised his considerable resources of politesse in trying to persuade Verdi to augment Macduff’s role by letting him (instead of Lady) sing a stanza of the brindisi; while Verdi was equally determined to relegate the sane Macduff to the edges of the opera (Verdi’s “Macbeth,” pp. 97, 101, 114-16). Eventually Escudier actually ordered, without Verdi’s knowledge, a change in the fourth-act cabaletta sung by Macduff, Malcolm, and the chorus, turning it into a solo for Macduff; earlier tenors, starting in 1850, had already augmented the role of Macduff by replacing this cabaletta with a solo cabaletta from Alzira concerning a disruption of a wedding (Full score, p. xxxix). But it is Escudier’s proposed alteration of the brindisi, the toast to the guests just before Banco’s ghost appears in the second-act banquet scene, that most encourages speculation. If Verdi had capitulated, the next step (as I try to imagine the Macbeth opera that Escudier really wanted) would have been to reconstruct the brindisi as a duet for Lady and Macduff, with a sketch of an embrace at the end; next, Lady and Macduff could exchange significant glances when Macbeth sees Banco’s ghost. The end of the Escudierization of Macbeth would require new music, a love duet in which soprano and tenor swear to be true to one another, after the crackpot husband—the normal inconvenient baritone—has been eliminated. Such a movement toward the rhythms of the erotic would demote the supernatural scenes to bad dreams; but in Macbeth the whole foreground is governed by the chronology of nightmare, and Macbeth had to be a sort of anti-opera in order to exist on the musical stage at all.
(Edited from Opera Today by Daniel Albright, Harvard University)
Frank van Aken