Thursday, March 22, 2012

Verdi and Shakespeare

 It's difficult for us to imagine now what it was like in the early and middle nineteenth century when for the first time people in non-English speaking countries could begin to read in good translations and see on stage superior performances of Shakespeare. Hector Berlioz who chronicles something of these events in his critical journalism, describes the effect  as revolution and revelation. Almost all the major composers of the musical theatre of that time would try their hands at a Shakespearean dramatization. Romeo and Juliet's coming from Berlioz  and Gounod, Wagner's early adaptation of Measure for Measure (and the Bard always before him as a model to be emulated), Bellini's Capulets and Montagues, Otto Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor and most extravagantly Giuseppi Verdi with Otello, Falstaff and early on Macbeth, like many he would dream of a Lear, but never complete it.
Verdi's approach in his early work with the tragedy of Macbeth was both meticulous and humble, "If we can't do something great, let's at least try to do something extraordinary", he exhorted his librettist in a letter. He would revise it in detail over the years. He nearly drove his writers to distraction in the extent of his personal interventions and objections, clearly he was determined to get it as right as he could. To a greater extent than would have been expected, coming as it did before his internationally acclaimed great works of the next decade of the 1850's that saw the arrival of Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata. Despite what is known as the " years in the galley" as he struggled toward mastery, which would come, and the dream of an early retirement like Rossini, which never would.
The great moments in Macbeth are all there: the premonitions of the witches, the dream of power and tragic belief that one can "read the future", as if one saw more than the vainglorious self; the doubling of the scope of ambition by Lady Macbeth's encouragement and collaboration; the regicide and then the slow descent into guilt, madness and finally utter defeat. It's as old as the Bible and as modern as Hitler's defeat in the snows of Russia and final suicide, railing at the world and the fates and oblivious to personal failings and individual guilt. Verdi meets these great moments with music of high power and extraordinary inspiration. He revels in the "supernatural aspects" of the witches appearances, the murders of Duncan and Banquo and the return of the ghost at dinner. Near the end in the fourth act he outdoes himself, in Lady Macbeth's ' Una macchia e qui tutora' :
                                                  Yet, here's a spot !
                                                     Out I say damned spot ...
                                                          Here's the smell  
                                                             of the blood still ... All the perfumes 
                                                                of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand 
The music is hallucinatory, affecting, tragic and pathetic simultaneously and points the way to the supreme masterpieces to come, culminating in the great diptych that caps his career. Armies of aspiring baritones have tried their hand at Macbeth and endless ambitious mezzos as the Lady; most famously in our time Nilsson, Verrett and the towering figure of Maria Callas whose sleepwalking scene haunts audiences to this day . 
Two great masters compliment each other in Verdi's Macbeth, tune in this Saturday at noon for the Met's live broadcast here on KPAC and KTXI.      

by Ron Moore

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