06 Sep 2011
Macbeth from Paris and Parma
Superstitions surround theatrical productions of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy.
Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, first heard in 1907, once seemed important. Arturo Toscanini conducted the Met premiere in 1911 with Farrar and later arranged some of its music for a 1947 recording with his NBC Symphony.
The economics of the recording companies dictate much that is not ideal. Wagner’s operas were not composed as they were in order to permit the extraction of bleeding chunks, even on those occasions when strophic song forms do occur.
Among the recent recordings of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, Valery Gergiev’s release on the LSO Live label is an excellent addition to the discography of this work.
While not unknown, the songs of Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942) deserve to be heard more frequently.
Recorded on 5 and 6 May 2008 and 17 and 18 January 2009 at the Lisztzentrum (Raiding, Austria), this recent Bridge release makes available the piano-vocal versions of three song cycles by Gustav Mahler, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Rückert-Lieder, and Kindertotenlieder performed by mezzo-soprano Hermine Haselböck, accompanied by Russell Ryan.
Contraltos rarely achieve the acclaim and renown of sopranos. Assigned few leading roles in opera, they are condemned to playing the villain or the grandmother, or to stealing the castrati’s trousers in en travesti roles.
Following their 2011 Decca recording of Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts (1566), I Fagiolini continue their quest to unearth lost treasures of the High Renaissance and early Baroque, with this collection of world-premiere recordings, ‘reconstructions’ and ‘reconstitutions’ of music by Giovanni and Andrea Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Palestrina, and their less well-known compatriots Viadana, Barbarino and Soriano.
Eternal Echoes is an album of khazones [Jewish cantorial music] for cantorial soloist, solo violin and a blended instrumental ensemble comprising a small orchestra and the Klezmer Conservatory Band.
Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony is an outstanding contribution to the composer’s discography.
Oliver Knussen burst into British music with an unprecedented flourish. In 1967, the London Symphony Orchestra premiered Knussen’s First Symphony, with István Kertész scheduled to conduct.
Based on performances given in Summer 2010 at the Lucerne Festival, this recording of Beethoven’s Fidelio is an admirable recording that captures the vitality of the work as conducted by Claudio Abbado.
Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872) was one of the most popular composers of his day in Poland, and of the many works he wrote for the stage, two are performed from time to time, Halka (1848) and Strazny dwór [The Haunted Manor] (1865).
The Polish alto Jadwiga Rappé is a familiar voice in various stage and concert works, and the recent release of a selection of songs by Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872) is an opportunity to hear her performing artsongs.
Originally released on multiple discs in 1981 this reissue on two CDs is a comprehensive collection of art songs by Italian and French composers from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
An exciting contribution to the discography of this popular opera, the live performance of Richard Strauss’s Salome from the Festspielhaus at Baden-Baden is a compelling DVD.
Released in late 2011, Deutsche Grammophon’s DVD of the new staging of Berg’s Lulu at the Gran Teatro del Liceu, Barcelona is an excellent contribution to the discography of this fascinating opera.
A recent release by the Metropolitan Opera, this two-disc set makes available on DVD the famous performance of Berg’s Lulu that was broadcast on 20 December 1980 as part of the PBS series “Live from the Met.”
The novels of Sinclair Lewis once shot across the American literary skies like comets, alarming and fascinating readers of that era, but their tails didn’t extend far behind them.
Once the province of only the most dedicated opera fanatics, mid-20th century recordings of privately taped live performances have become more widely available.
Flute players in opera orchestra around the world must look forward to the frequent appearances of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, knowing that while the stage spotlight in the mad scene will be on the soprano, the orchestral spotlight will be on their instrument.
Superstitions surround theatrical productions of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy.
Besides the odd backstage injury or death, an air of box office doom also permeates any staging of Macbeth. Two recent DVDs of opera house performances of Giuseppe Verdi and Francesco Maira Piave’s adaptation give credence to the superstitions, no matter how many tickets may have been sold. What the cameras recorded is fairly dire.
Superficially, both Lilaina Cavalli’s staging for the Teatro Regio di Parma in 2006 and the 2009 Paris Opera work of Dmitri Tcherniakov could be classified as “Regie” productions. In other words, the directors make themselves felt at every almost moment, with their choice of setting and costume, as well as the occasional ostentatious creative touch. For the latter, consider Tcherniakov’s use, between scenes, of stage projections of a Google Earth point of view on a small European town, or Cavalli’s use of a little person in Lady Macbeth’s first scene, said little person sporting, for no discernible reason, a long, thick rat tail.
However, Cavalli just uses some of the clichés of Regie directors to spice up her basically traditional point of view. Viewers can ignore the chorus members in theater-seat rows watching the action at certain points, and the pointless updating of air raid sirens and gun fire just before the overture. When the singers appear, they essentially move and behave as singers of these roles have for decades. Sylvie Valayre’s Lady Macbeth, for example, wears a conventional nightgown and carries a candle holder in her sleep walking scene. Veteran Leo Nucci goes from military regalia to kingly robes, all while wearing a fairly unvaried pained expression.
It’s the worst of both worlds — the distractions of an inept Regie production and the pro-forma stiffness of a dull traditional one. Cavalli is blessed, therefore, to have Leo Nucci as her lead. Nucci is not a great signing actor, but he can be effective, and this is one of his great roles. By the end of the evening — a long sing — gruffness begins to dominate his tone, but for much of the performance, he is in top shape, earning the audience’s passionate adulation. From the slight wobble and tendency to smother the tone, Sylvia Valayre appears to be a soprano with a huge voice just barely within her control. She plays a conventional Lady, stroking her husband’s bare chest when flirtatious, and widening her eyes to convey homicidal passion. The rest of the cast is capable but generic. Roberto Iuliano does sing a rather sweet “ah, la paterna mano.” Bruno Bartoletti, even more veteran than his leading man, gets a proficient reading from the Parma orchestra.
Both Cavalli in Parma and Tcherniakov in Paris opt to spare their singers of Banco a zombie-like reappearance after the character’s murder, instead having their Macbeth alarm the party guests by raving about a man invisible both to them and the audience. After that, there is no comparison between the two productions. Paris wants the “real Regie.” Tcherniakov is quoted in the booklet essay as admitting Macbeth gave him “a world of trouble.” So apparently it was his intent to share that with us. He apparently decided that the world of Macbeth is centered on community, so the main stage is the square of a remarkably neat row of houses apparently constructed by Ikea. For the castle, a frame moves forward with an elegant, high-ceilinged living room in earth tones. In the witch and forest scenes, the chorus — mixed in gender — ambles and roams around the town square. For Banco’s murder, for example, that fine singer Ferrucio Furlanetto basically just gets lost in a crowd of passing strangers in overcoats, and when they part, he is dead on the ground. This distaste for the eerie or supernatural elements of the libretto has its flip side in the best part of Tcherniakov’s direction, the complexity of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s relationship. Here we have a couple who are outwardly normal. Circumstances bring out an unexpected blood lust, but they turn to each other with a gentleness not often seen in other productions. The director’s most amazing work is with Violetta Urmana as Lady Macbeth. In other appearances Urmana has used both the amplitude of her voice and her physical self to sink back into prima donna poses. Here, both her vocal work and her acting have a sharp relief that grips the attention, even when Urmana is not at the front of the attention. Almost as strong is Dimitris Tiliakos in the title role. His is not an imposing voice, but he works with it to produce incisive effects. His thinner frame gives him a haunted look, as well as a sense of weakness that draws in the audience’s sympathy. That’s especially potent in the final scene, which Tiliakos plays in a shirt and briefs. Besides the typically imposing Furlanetto, Paris has a credible Macduff in Stefano Secco. A young conductor with appropriate name of Teodor Currentzis exhibits both expected flash and some keen insight into a score that does have its unsubtle moments.
Despite the originality of Tcherniakov’s vision, ultimately this Macbeth simply works too hard to be different than any other Macbeth. There’s always something interesting to observe, but the total impact is much less than the director might have hoped. A 30 minute bonus feature centered on the director will fascinate some, as it delves deep into his working method. Others will find their worst suppositions about the ego of Regie artists extensively confirmed.
If anyone is desperate for a Macbeth on DVD and these two are all that is easily available, consider the Parma one for the star power of Nucci, and the Paris one for Urmana’s amazing work, if not also for some interesting stage pictures and a sense that there is a place for opera in the world of 2011.