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Verdiís MacBeth
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Matthew Paris

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 9:05 pm - Verdiís MacBeth
I saw the Kirov production of MacBeth at the Met on July 23rd. The Kirov, a true company, has the iron voiced Valery Alexaev, looking big, virile and suitably villainous and haunted, playing MacBeth, a lead I havenít seen before in their other spectacles. Banquo is done by their stellar bass-baritone Gennady Bezzubenkov, an amiable rich basso whom one sees often in major and minor roles elsewhere in their other extravaganzas.
The most spectacular performance, that of Lady MacBeth, done by Olga Sergeeva, was remarkable even by Kirov standards. Miss Sergeeva softly luscious voice has a mobility like Joan Sutherlandís with none of Sutherlandís brassy harshness; she sings every bit of bel canto filigree with a casual lapidary perfection yet quite miraculously has a very large and heroic style she disciples effortlessly simultaneously.
Beyond those virtues, trivial in life, central in opera singing, she is endowed with over two octaves of a flawless range o sonic virtuosity. She is physically over six feet tall and makes quite a physical impression as the blood-hungry Lady MacBeth beyond her impeccable exquisite and varied vocal talents. In a realm in which nothing less than spectacular greatness is acceptable to acolytes of song in the shadows often with no good qualities at all, she was the one who won the plaudits of the opera zealots consistently with good reason the balmy evening I was there.
The set and costume designer, Tanya McCallin, chose to place Verdiís MacBeth in a timeless world of harsh achromatic abstractions of a quasi-Hans Hoffman character that emphasized the grey weather as well as the classical dilemmas of these Scottish characters. McCallin wasnít one of those horrible extrusive directors resetting the opera in some inappropriate time and place like the snowy suburbs of Elmira in 1850.
That sort of outrageous choice had doomed the State Opera decisteres production of MacBeth last year; she was emphasizing the universality of MacBeth by taking it out of any attempt to connect it to realism.
Yet the costumes were real if they sheathed the actors in a cosmic emptiness. The effect of such a visual spectacle is to place the dark hungers of the action in a larger enigma.
One might cavil a little in this Kirov production only at Mikhal Sinkevitchís rather square though substantial conducting of Verdiís red hot score. The 19th century was the golden age of rubato and a swelling pulse to msec given by accentuating the first beat of a measure or some other beat to give the effect of breath and counterpoint as well of odd syncopations to a rhythmic regularity.
One can hear from recordings of conductors who worked with Verdi like Toscanini the authentic way to present the orchestra as another choral-like voice in music that is not tethered by an iron metronome. If one keeps the rubato subtle it makes its points without doing damage to the forward propulsion of the score. It doesnít seriously hurt Verdiís music to leave out these nuances; it doesnít make an idiomatic case for it either.
This is the only time Iíve been to a Verdi opera when an announcement was made in Russian to turn off oneís cell phones. Of course in our time we think that nothing could have been more quintessentially Russian to us in its point of view that Verdiís exciting and songful anatomy of the evils of a taste for power even though it Italian music adapted to a play about Scotland written by an Englishman.
This was initially not an insight available to anybody in Russia in the 19th century as well as Verdi. In 1847, when Verdi wrote MacBeth, Glinka had not begun to realize that there was perhaps more to music than doing melancholy salon imitations of Hummel.
Russia in 1847 had a culture, great writers like Pushkin and Gogol, yet not yet developed an idiosyncratic musical language in opera and large instrumental forms. As one can see from Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov the follies of Russian life at the time struck its most celebrated writers more often than not as both intractable and funny.
The farce of Gonsharov, the sardonic humor of Pushkin, is one step away from the desperation of those more partial to take action to try to do something about the traditional evils of their national political life.
MacBeth as a story must have more than local appeal; it has been set by Verdi, Ernest Bloch in a great scary opera nobody hears, there is even a fragment of Beethovenís setting of the opening scene of his proposed version: now it is the slow movement of the D Major Ghost Trio. In the 60s one saw a Japanese version of this tale in a movie, Ugetsu, translated as Throne Of Blood. Of course the Japanese had nine hundred years of civil war given to them as a lethal guerdon by their tirelessly bellicose barons. If we speak different languages on this planet, we have the same sins.
Itís almost certain that Moussorsky, looking at MacBeth by Verdi with is low voiced protagonist, resonated to this opera in ways that produced both Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina. For Russian putting on Veriís MacBeth is a neoclassic way of commenting in code on Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible and Stalin.
One of my friends, a former citizen of the Soviet Union, has told me that Russians have been writing in a kind of sheathed code for many decades; under communism the code was so murky that people nowadays can't make out what their late Artists were talking about.
Knowing this partiality for cipher tends to focus our perceptions of Russian opera as well as what Russians and their opera companies like the Kirov have found intriguing in foreign composers like Verdi. They certainly couldnít have missed the critique of their own kings and priests of this Milanese revolutionary genius.
One would imagine in Russia the production of Verdiís operas like this one and Don Carlo, an opera with a similar theme, a protagonist equally tormented and haunted by sin like Boris Godunov, would be a signal for the audience to read into these supposedly historical or neo-classic subjects themes that were much more contemporary and meaningful to them.
As much as Russians find nuggets of truth and depth in opera while Americans mostly look for truth in buddy policier movies or television commercials while they find operas pretexts to spend corporate money when the Knicks are out of town, American taste tends to want opera to appear as if it is gaudy but tinkling exotic spectacle about nothing at all like the plays of David Belasco.
I think one can be sure that Verdi had the Russian point of view about politics if his republican American audience might not honor such opinions themselves. Though some sermons are covert and guised, preachers generally recognize preachers.
Just as Russians seeing Rimsky-Korsakoffís The Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh in 1907 could not help but think as it took in its strange affirmation of nature and a maternal religion of Mother Earth they were sampling the anarchist views of Prince Peter Kropotkin and Michael Bakunin, MacBeth would be for Russians a study of almost every tsar and internal tussles of the boyari they could think of in their own history.
Anarchism and theosophy, which one finds in Rimsky-Korsakoffís operas, was very popular in Russia in 1907, less fashionable elsewhere. For Russians Verdiís strident republicanism and haunted bassos envenomed by sin mirrored their view of Manichean politics very well in any era.
We donít see Rimsky Korsakoff in America as more than an interesting stuffy pedagogue, mild orientalist and composer of some talent with a national bent; to think of him as an anarchist, for which plainly Kitezh is a polemic, makes us see Rimsky-Korsakoff as something whom most Americans might be a little more uncomfortable with, a troubled thinker very different than the artificer of exotic musical fables like Sheherezade.
Do we want to think of the beloved old Rimsky as an anarchist or even worse, as is plain from his even more nihilist Coque DíOr? Let us admire the old guy as a sort of avuncular fellow orchestrating the operas of talented boozers, perhaps blinking at some of the spiky chords of the naughty young Stravinsky.
Actually Rimsky-Korsakoff at the end of his life was writing pretty spiky music. Such is the way history is an apparent malleable set of perceptions perpetually revised to suit the momentarily fashionable on their way to the grave.
As soon as we associate Rimsky Korsakoff with Kropotkin and Bakunin, or take Verdi seriously as a revolutionary, we are ourselves departing from our American notion that opera is expensive but thankfully superficial and empty. Actually it not only preaches revolution more than any old Bolshevik but is the cheapest entertainment in town.
We might not see from our own provincial epicurean national cultural presumptions about opera and the Arts in general that the humanism in Khovanshchina and Semyon Kotko, not to mention the tormented character of Yvgeny Onegin or Mazeppa in Tchaikovsky operas put on by the Kirov last year are polemics for popular humanism written in a cipher meant to evade the censors. Verdi had to do the same thing with different censors. It was dangerous for anyone in those days to speak up for humanity because plainly the rulers were not for those they ruled; they ran a system of open inequality. Now it is perilous to speak at all and have any serious opinions about anything.
In a sense MacBeth is an opera in its condemnation of the evils of excessive will that has the same vision as Boris Godunov if it is remote from Rimsky-Korsakoffís Kitezh and its female protagonist at home in the forest talking with flowers, animals and birds.
Yet one should not ignore in these transitions of a musical spectacle to opinion in their necessarily sometimes murky mythic code irrespective of his politics, Verdi did in front of us more than twenty times what must be one of the greatest displays of sheer talent in extant artistic history.
We never can easily perceive an opera as the composer meant it to be experienced; we know more about history and its subsequent effects on its once present culture than the creators ever could have guessed. One should say that Verdi was particularly involved in the writing and even the staging of MacBeth; he knew he was taking opera a step up from triviality further than it had ever gone and worked even for him with attention to every bit of filigree.
Nevertheless one should say Piaveís suavely dark libretto is one of the best opera had ever had since the heyday of Da Ponte. It is economical, makes points Shakespeare only touched by inference, zips along with a subtle reflective speed.
Verdiís particular insights into the inner life of the powerful princes and priests of this world were never lost on Russia. The way lords or boyari created civil wars and mayhem with their local fracases were both an odium to them as well as Shakespeare if no less so to Verdi.
Certainly Russians could resonate with Verdiís tragic and measured view of politicks, looking at power itself as a corruption hardly solved as Shakespeare thought by having a stable autocracy run by a prince whose whim might haply be sometimes benign.
Verdiís insights werenít lost on Rimsky-Korsakoff anymore than they were unnoticed by Moussorsky. Verdi wouldnít have taken his inquiries as far preaching a sheathed anarchism in a coded way as Rimsky-Korsakoff did; he certainly defined the geography upon which opera acted as a catalyst for values we not only take for granted in the United States; we see them as fossil concerns we donít honor anymore much in practice as we trundle to the shopping mall to celebrate our equality and freedom.
Shakespeareís audience themselves would have seen this sanguine Scottish tale as a thriller about the unruly and harsh world of bloody warlords they had conquered to their north; they viewed Scotland as something like our wild West. Even in its Elizabethan version it was an exotic piece about a world Englishmen thought half savage.
Verdi in his time saw in MacBeth a chance to explore in fearless psychological complexity politics and morals of a seriousness character in a medium too often trivially bel canto. We are too accustomed to the success of Veriís 1840s audacity to appreciate his somber intrepidity in the eyes of his contemporaries.
Piave really gave him a beautifully sculpted design of feral words that is much more aspect about guilt and haunting torment, subjects about which even the normally wild Shakespeare had been less flamboyant. Piaveís masterfully crafted script gives the characters a chance to change motilely from instant to instant in a complicated way really unknown to opera before MacBeth.
This most bellicose opus was one of several operas of Verdi that bucked the taste in the audience of the time for tenors. Like Rigoletto, Attila, Don Carlo, and Falstaff, MacBeth has no major tenor protagonist. Verdi really worked very hard on making this early opera a singularity. The final battle scene for example is a virtuosic immense fugue. It overdoses his musical virtuosity. There are examples of marching band mucic as well as odd orchestrations of arias with weird wind ostinatos one would never find in Donizetti or Bellini. This is a composer that from first to last took everything to its limit and beyond.
I would say low voces in singing protagonists have in them a kind of maturity and experience as high once suggest innocence. Itís an implicit comment about the woes of adult life. Busoni shifts the paradigm by making his Faust a baritone, his Mephistopheles a tenor.
Schoenberg does the same trick in Moses und Aron. For Busoni and Schoenberg experience sometimes led to wisdom, not corruption. Verdi, not ready to give up his received models, had had similar ideas about baritones going through torment in their greed for power in Nabucco, Atilla and later, Don Carlo. In a sense Verdiís last opera, Falstaff, is a subtle comic version of one more baritone scrambling for some bit of male vanity.
The models for Verdi to write such an opera when he began his run of these inquiries into the male inner life were few; Don Giovanni is the most obvious. Lack of central tenor parts and no love story was a signal in Verdiís time for his audience that they were going to savor something more substantial than La Figlia del Regimento.
Verdi is oddly thought of by us now as a composer of great tenor and soprano arias; his own time probably thought of him as a coral master, maker of dismal tales for low voices about corruption, a psychologist and republican revolutionary in the manner of Meyerbeer, a serious type out to rescue bel canto opera from mere frivolity and turn it into a bully pulpit for populist values. Of course Verdi didnít write operas about the common people; one has to look to verrissimo opera for that.
If MacBeth is read by us who still remember getting an education in this country when schools offered it commonly, as a high school chestnut; half a century ago is was often played in America. It was once Charleton Hestonís signature piece as a Shakespearean actor in the 1950s. Now we are less worried and uncomfortable about boyari than tsars and demagogic populist millionaires; we might resonate in these times more to Coriolanus.
Certainly we still arenít ready to examine what weíve lost by our affair with the carnal and do not yet value the polemical discourse of Antony and Cleopatra. In this sense MacBeth with its harshness doesnít resonate with us as much as an opera might about torporous and jaded epicurean singing sotto voce about their gout to the delicate accompaniment of febrile harmonies.
Beyond Verdiís 1847 effort, MacBeth hasnít have much of a play as a fulcrum for a rousing opera. Although Blochís very powerful score hasnít made it into the repertoire in spite of an excellent Galleried revival a few decades ago, the theme of violent lust for power and guilt seems to have been less attractive to us as more of us have discovered ourselves that affluence if not power has its woes.
Our MacBeths are more likely to go into therapy and find that they like themselves very much. Yet Verdiís MacBeth has been around if not front and center in the operatic world since the great Cornell McNeill made it his piece de la resistance at the Met in the 60s after there had been a general revival of other Verdi tempestuous operas in the late 50s. McNeill was a singing actor like Leonard Warren, neither of whom one will forget easily.
MaNeillís powerful physique and emotional stage presence was in its way an anatomy of power in front of us in a world that hadnít forgotten Hitler and Stalin, yet was making its way, it thought, away from such sanguine autocrats. Verdi and Piave while quoting Shakespeareís famous lines literally in Italian, (sort of; for example nulla is a stronger and more ironic word that nothing in the famous tomorrow and tomorrow speech, I think. Verdi gives the same word the same emphasis in Iagoís confessional monologue in his Otello.) produced a wonderful study of the internal life and guilt of murderous tyrants that in certain ways outdoes its English model in depictions of inner hellishness of spirit.
Verdi was not only offering a tormented king as a protagonist, something not only new but treasonous in 1847 opera; he was able to find troves of insight into the viperish Lady MacBethís thirsts for rule and mayhem as well. It was a long way from the usual bel canto paradigm of courtship and bad luck that dispatches the mighty and innocent with some efficiency; it was an impeccable contrivance dear to the students of theatre of the day who wrote such superficial and ceremonial libretti.
Perhaps it is sorrily true that tragedy of even the most shallow sort amuses us because we survive the action while the characters donít.
Nevertheless itís curious that I remember McNeill but not his leading ladies from his heyday at the Met; as I say, in this Kirov production the Lady MacBeth of Olga Sergeeeva was more memorable.
Itís rare enough to listen anywhere, anytime to a few hours of music of geniuses much less to as well watch action devised under Verdiís direction to amuse us with its own seemingly easy virtues. Verdiís Art is not only to do these ordinary miracles but clothe them in a musical language of utter transparency along with the variety of its seemingly easy virtuosity.
That is doubly hard. He is at once the most gifted of opera composers and the most elusive; he alone has the talent to seem as if he is a maker of tunes like a Venetian boatman and yet produce at once revolutionary republican tracts and pre-Freudian inquiries into the dark crannies of the human spirit.
Even in a relatively early opera like MacBeth one hears only beneath what seems to be effortless songfulness of a simplicity the delicious felicitous details of his cunning orchestration, even that throwaway weird fugue that accompanied the operaís denouement, as if Verdi isnít writing something formal and Parnassian; three hours of continual full throated melodies from a man like Schubert who can't stop turning out a lovely song. Verdiís spinning of sonic voluptuous music seems natural and effortless to him as banality and being booing is to nearly everybody else.
When we attend most opera we are aware that we are the lucky audience at a public ceremony; we might not as well see the wizardry in Verdiís magic show. The experience at once amuses us and detaches us personally from the sheer monumentality of his mercurial spectacles. One never feels a brainless gaudiness that aims to awe us for no reason at all in Verdi. Even in the biggest opera house one is certain as one sits in the shadows that Verdi is personally speaking to one, ďfrom the heart to the heartĒ as Beethoven said.
Itís an amazing gift, all the more virtuosi because it aims to do what seems to the ignorant and the gulls to be easy. Wagner, the other very personal composer of Verdiís time always makes us feel that we are bathing in a lake of his blood. Thatís dark and sanguine magic we are aware of; he comes at us all the more intensely because Wagnerís complexity along with his near obscene sensationalism detaches us as much as it enthralls us; it is like watching a duo of naked monsters from Pluto doing the tango.
How much variety Verdi can bring to essentially transparent means of making music shows his mastery of a more subtle close-up magic that is all the more astounding because we are as seemingly proximate to the dead magician as we are. Verdi has grandiose power along with talent to touch the spirit; he also offers the audience unlike Wagner an adult maturity and measure.
Some of Verdiís solutions to how to write opera might be followed by our own local musicians in our time with benefit to them though there are of course infinite ways to make great music.
Like Ives Verdi understood the referential puissance of sometimes writing music that sounds as if he were listening to a brass band on some street singer in the public square outside his window. The ordinary models he chooses for music that is anything but ordinary bring us closer to both Verdi and Ives in a private way. As Ives once said about his own music, Verdiís operas demand that one get oneís ears screwed on right.
If we asked ourselves as Verdi did what sensational subjects of a sinister, fearless and uncomfortable character might get us arrested if we mounted them in public, what sources we might take up musically that would enrage or engage the audience, yet could be extended to the frontier of waft was musically possible we would not have infallibly better operas; at least they would be trying to be other than ambitiously dismal as a dolorous wine and cheese party among the American faithful.
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