Magazine article The Spectator

Series of Distractions

Magazine article The Spectator

Series of Distractions

Article excerpt

Macbeth Royal Opera La Bohème Royal Albert Hall

Verdi's Macbeth is one of those operas which I always have hopes will be greater than it ever actually seems in performance. Its seriousness of intention is plain from the outset, and by and large Verdi maintains an intensity which the subject requires, and which isn't to be found in any of his previous nine operas.

The Witches are a problem, and all the special pleading on their behalf still doesn't begin to solve it convincingly. But there are other, more elusive things about the opera than that which cause me difficulties, and which mean that Macbeth, for all the great interpretations of the two chief characters which there have been over the years, still fails to make it into the canon of Verdi's major works with any degree of security. It needs to prove itself each time it is presented, in a way that at least ten of the others don't.

A major source of difficulty is focused by thinking of those great interpretations -- the names that spring to mind are all performances or recordings of 'Lady', as Verdi (and the First Folio) call her, and not of Macbeth. It's not just that there has hardly been a row of great male singers to put alongside Callas, Modl, Varnay, Gencer, Nilsson, Rysanek, Bumbry, and so on; but that whoever is singing the role of Macbeth can't make so big an impact because he doesn't have anything of the order of Lady's three great set-pieces.

In a work as compressed as this, as in the play on which it is based, character has to be established immediately and firmly -- by great poetry in Shakespeare, by great music here; but that is what is lacking. We see Macbeth and hear him but our feelings about what kind of man he is -- a great hero, full of ambition -- are something that, if we have them at all, are taken over from the play. Lady Macbeth is the strongest possible contrast: the entry reading the letter is a masterstroke, and then her great aria 'Vieni!

T'affretta!' and its cabaletta show us what her character is in a way that makes the dialogue between her and Macbeth much more vivid from her side than from his.

And this dichotomy of characterisation pervades the opera, with her movement through determination to insanity or something close portrayed with an inwardness that Macbeth is never awarded. In the party scene the grimness of Lady's repetition of her brindisi tells us much more about her than Macbeth's gasps and shouts at the apparition of Banquo tell us about him.

Yet at the Royal Opera, as soon as the overture began, indeed in the opening bar, I felt that the work was going to make a decisive impression, thanks to the conducting of Yakov Kreizberg. …

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