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It was general manager Rudolf Bing who, in January 1959, first brought Giuseppe Verdi’s opera to the Metropolitan. He had launched his stewardship eight seasons earlier with the Met premiere of the composer’s Don Carlo.
The Macbeth production promised to be the hit of the season, a starry affair, a spectacular vehicle for Leonard Warren and Maria Callas. Callas had sung at the Met in the previous two seasons to great acclaim. In November of what would have been the third, Bing fired her in as public a manner as he could contrive. She had committed herself to alternating Lady Macbeth with Violetta and, for the first time, to the national tour. But the diva changed her mind, presenting the excuse that toggling between the heavier and the lighter Verdi roles, even with a week’s rest in between, would invite vocal strain. Bing suggested she replace Violetta with Tosca or Lucia, upon which Callas retorted: “My voice is not an elevator, going up and down.” When she failed to comply with her agreement by the deadline Bing set, he sacked her for breach of contract, to the outrage of the press and the public.
That was not all. Shakespeare’s unlucky “Scottish play” lived up to its reputation when in January 1959, the very month Macbeth was to open, the conductor, Dimitri Mitropoulos, suffered a heart attack. Leonie Rysanek, in her Met debut, took over for Callas, Erich Leinsdorf for Mitropoulos. As the Viennese soprano made her entrance, there came from the audience the shout of “Brava Callas.” Bing later confessed that it was he who had arranged for the offensive outburst; he had wanted to win sympathy for his substitute. Despite uncertain lower and middle registers, and a frequently ill-tuned though resplendent top, the charismatic Rysanek notched a great success. Warren and Carlo Bergonzi (in the essentially one-aria role of Macduff) acknowledged the belcantist traces of Verdi’s score. This was the third Macbeth with which Bing was intimately involved, all three directed by Carl Ebert and designed by Caspar Neher. But by 1959, their expressionistic concept had had its day.
The Met’s next Macbeth came in 1982 and set off one of the most boisterous receptions in memory. Peter Hall and John Bury had had the ingenious notion of returning Macbeth to the theatre practice of Verdi’s youth, with flying witches and a giant cauldron from which emerged a nearly nude Hecate and effigies of the apparitions. James Levine conducted Verdi’s complete 1865 Paris revision of his 1847 score; it included a ballet danced by sylphs in tutus as Macbeth lay dying. The public saw it as Gothic gone amok; it responded with laughter, boos, and a few altercations. During the third and last revival of the Hall/Bury show, the Macbeth curse struck again. On January 23, 1988, the Saturday matinée was suspended at the second-act intermission by the suicide of Bantcho Bantchevsky, an eighty-two-year-old Bulgarian singing coach and Met habitué, who jumped eighty feet to his death from the family circle.
The current blood-splattered, black and white production of Macbeth dates back to 2007, Peter Gelb’s second year. It will be seen “Live in HD” on Saturday, October 11. Adrian Noble’s provocative updating to the 20th century eschews both the picturesque rendering of Scotland and the literal enactment of the scenario: the witches sport the pocketbooks and bobby socks of 1950s bag ladies, Macduff sings from a Jeep, Lady Macbeth teeters on a row of chairs in the “Sleepwalking” scene. The Met’s luxury casting for the 2014 revival has had rapturous reviews: Zeljko Lucic in the title role, Anna Netrebko as Lady Macbeth, René Pape as Banquo, and Joseph Calleja as Macduff.
The clips that follow feature four sopranos in two of Lady Macbeth’s arias, and a baritone in Macbeth’s death scene: Anna Netrebko and Shirley Verrett, Maria Callas and Martha Mödl, Leonard Warren.
Here Netrebko sings Lady Macbeth’s entrance aria, recorded in the 2012 concert that inaugurated St. Petersburg’s new Mariinsky Theatre. While she conveys ferocity with dramatic coloratura, abrupt descents to the lower register, incisive attacks on high, and a powerful, dark sound, Netrebko's character remains generalized. This is early in the transformation of the erstwhile belcanto soubrette of L’Elisir d’amore and Don Pasquale into the heavy-duty dramatic soprano she is becoming. (Netrebko will open the Met's 2017-18 season in a new production of Norma.) Viewers of this Saturday's simulcast will be able to contrast the two versions for themselves, as they will be able to contrast Netrebko’s representation of Verdi’s monstrous heroine with Shirley Verrett’s iconic interpretation in the subsequent clip.
In 1988, near the end of her more than two-decade career with the company, Verrett sang her sole Met Lady Macbeth. By that time, she had seesawed between mezzo-soprano and soprano roles, with the result that register breaks had become all too pronounced. Seen here in 1978, in Giorgio Strehler’s remarkable La Scala production of Verdi’s opera, she is at the peak of her powers, her scale even, and as always, her presence and her intensity fully deployed. Masterfully conducted by Claudio Abbado, Verrett brings the full force of her concentration to this portrait of untrammeled ambition. The clip ends with the two-minute-long ovation she received from the Milan public.
With her abrupt exit in 1959, the Met lost the chance to hear the Callas version of the role. The recording of the “Sleepwalking” scene released that very year is evidence that she would have registered a triumph in New York. Callas’s temperament and musical imagination were made for Lady Macbeth. The horrific murder of King Duncan and the overwhelming guilt that followed are vivid in the soprano’s timbre, by turns veiled, as in a trance, and exposed in naked pain. Please note: the orchestral introduction to the "Sleepwalking" scene lasts approximately three minutes.
In Martha Mödl’s 1952 German-language recording of the “Sleepwalking” scene, Verdi’s phrases are altered by the preponderance of final consonants. If neither the singer’s sound nor highly expressionistic approach can be called Italianate, her voice approximates the composer’s specifications--“una voce aspra ... vorrei che la voce di Lady Macbeth fosse qualcosa di diabolico! [a bitter voice ... I would like Lady Macbeth's voice to have something of the diabolic].” Many have found her reading mesmerizing, beautiful in its own terms. Mödl, who never sang Italian opera in her brief Met career, was, like Verrett, a mezzo who, for a time, took on soprano roles, mostly in Wagner. Here she is caught at her best, before the cost of dramatic utterance, often at the highest emotional pitch in the top register, caught up with her. Mödl eventually returned to the mezzo realm and sang character roles brilliantly well into the 1980s.
In opposition to Lady Macbeth’s noctambulist bravura, Macbeth’s final aria, “Pietà, rispetto, amore [Pity, respect, love],” reflects a calm acceptance that his misdeeds have deprived him of respect and that no kind words will be engraved on his tombstone. Leonard Warren, the Met’s first Thane of Cawdor, evinces the dynamic range and the perfectly calibrated legato that place him in the very top rank of 20th-century Verdi baritones.
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