The latest opera sound track is Verdi's Macbeth (London CD 417 525-2), taken from a film by the French director Claude D'Anna. The film, heavy with metaphor and full of images of death and barbaric chill, debuted last summer in Cannes.
None of that needs to be considered in hearing the recording, for it represents only another approach to this pivotal work in Verdi's catalogue. The opera, first staged in 1847, was revised in 1865 as Verdi sought to make his work more nearly parallel with Shakespeare's sense of grandeur. The earlier version is rarely attempted now, and Riccardo Chailly conducts the 1865 score in this recording.
Like Shakespeare's play, the opera is ambiguous about who is the central character. The 1865 revision gave Lady Macbeth more brilliant music to sing. Her arias - the letter scene, the banquet aria and her sleepwalking scene - are the opera's main set pieces, recalling the old-style three-part arias, but also looking ahead to the tighter music dramas of Verdi's high maturity. Macbeth has few such musical opportunities, finding himself portrayed in music that is introspective and complex. Others have bits of aria and duet. The witches dominate the opera's musical texture.
This recording stresses the work's sense of inner musing. Chailly asks sturdy but not feverish playing from the orchestra of the Teatro Communale di Bologna, the ensemble of which he has been music director since 1986. The tension inherent in this score is softened in his reading - as if Chailly were relying on the film settings to complete the atmosphere of terror. Even the prelude is understated, and that sets the tone for the performance.
Verdi wrote specifically about the kind of singer he wanted for Lady Macbeth, asking for roughness and even ugly sounds rather than a typical operatic approach. This recording casts Shirley Verrett in that central part. She has recorded the role before, and comes nearer the composer's ideal than before. Her voice has the rich low range to balance the (aptly) strident top. She avoids the traditionally "beautiful" in her performance of the big scenes, and injects a demonic quality to her role.
Baritone Leo Nucci sings the title role. His presence is less commanding than Verrett's, but that is a directorial choice, for his singing here is meant to express continuous questioning of his destiny. The banquet scene and his final near-aria in Scene 3 of the last act reveal him at top emotional force, but Verdians will prefer Renato Bruson's intense performance on the earlier Philips recording. Nucci is new to the part and will undoubtedly grow in it.
This recording has an advantage in Samuel Ramey's performance as Banquo. His singing overflows with the dramatic shaping of character, and his voice floods his scenes with sound. Veriano Luchetti and Antonio Barasorda are Macduff and Malcolm, singing the roles with more calm than might be expected.
Chailly, who conducted Macbeth in his debut in Salzburg, draws a workmanlike reading from his theater orchestra, but it is not one of the world-class ensembles. Its idiomatic ease in the score does not free the reading to be overhwelming. It may need the visual impact of the film to help it make its full effect.