Verdi’s “Macbeth” from Covent Garden: Royal Opera House

Wed April 4th@ 7.15pm.

Opera and theatre lovers are in for a special treat in early April – Verdi’s “Macbeth” from Covent Garden, followed a week later from RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon, by the great drama on which it was based, Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish play’; a play whose name many in the theatre will never speak because of their fears that to do so is to invite ill-luck. Verdi and Shakespeare are giants of the theatre and the former was a great admirer of the bard’s plays – he composed two other operas based on Shakespeare’s plays, “Falstaff” and “Otello”, and for much of his life grappled without success with an opera based on that tumultuous drama, “King Lear”.

“Macbeth”, broadly the same as in Shakespeare’s play, premiered in the Teatro della Pergola, Florence, on March 14th, 1847, the composer’s tenth opera. Although it wasn’t a great success originally, it was soon being performed throughout Italy and then all over Europe and is performed regularly all over the world ever since. I was performed in Dublin in 1869, with the legendary Pauline Viardot as the heroine. When Verdi was planning the opera, he wrote to his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave:- “This tragedy is one of the greatest creations of man”. He continued to revise it for many years after its first performance. It’s interesting to note that at the time of the opera’s composition the play had not been performed in Italy and was best known there as a ballet.

The role of Macbeth is a typical Verdi baritone role – his major aria, ‘Pieta, rispetto, amore’, which comes near the end of the opera, is a lament for his decline into evil. The role of Lady Macbeth (the theatrical couple are immortalised for me in the nineteen-seventies TV recording made by Judi Dench and Ian McKellan) is extremely difficult to cast. Verdi asked for a soprano voice that is dark and even ugly – she must ‘snarl’ her way through much of the opera and her voice must be flexible and of enormous range; the one and only Maria Callas was possessed of all the requirements. Matthew Boyden writes of the relatively primitive recording of a 1952 La Scala, Milan performance: “Despite the poor recorded sound, this set comes close to dramatic perfection”.

In composing “Macbeth”, Verdi tried to capture the power, the despair and the ferocity of one of the most intense and unrelenting plays ever written. He focused mainly on the three great entities in the play, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the witches. Due to the difficulty in filling the main female role, it’s not too often we get the opportunity to see this great opera. It should provide a thrilling evening. With the great Anna Netrebko (whom I saw on stage in a number of roles) as Lady Macbeth and Antonio Pappano conducting, it should provide a thrilling evening of opera. (Jim Ryan),

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