33. Orfeo ed Euridice / Orphée et Eurydice (Christoph Willibald Gluck)

ORFEO ED EURIDICE / ORPHÉE ET EURYDICE

By Christoph Willibald Gluck

Libretto : Ranieri de’ Calzabigi

First performed: Burgtheater, Vienna, 5 October 1762

Revised: Orphée et Eurydice, Académie Royale de Musique (seconde salle du Palais Royal), Paris, 2 August 1774, with a French text by Pierre Louis Moline.  Berlioz prepared another version in 1859, for the contralto Pauline Viardot (the first Fidès in Meyerbeer’s Prophète).

Dossier.

Criticism.


SYNOPSIS

The opera is based on the Greek legend of the musician Orpheus, son of Apollo and Calliope, the Muse of eloquence and epic poetry.  Orpheus’s lyre-playing could charm the beasts and birds, the trees and rocks.  His wife Eurydice, fleeing from the shepherd Aristæus (in some versions, a satyr), was bitten by a snake, and died.  The distraught musician vowed to rescue her from the Underworld.  His music thawed even the cold hearts of Hades and Persephone, who agreed to let her go – on the condition that he not look at her until they had returned to the world of mortals.

Orpheus - Greek vase

Orpheus led Eurydice through the gloomy caverns of Hades, she silently following.  At the last, with the gateway to the Earth in sight, he could not resist the temptation, and turned back.  He saw Eurydice, and she died – a second time, and forever.

In his grief, Orpheus forswore the company of women, and refused to worship any god except his father Apollo, the sun.  As he wandered disconsolately singing his lament, he was set upon by Mænads, the followers of Dionysus, and torn to pieces.  The women threw his remains into the river Hebrus, and his head and lyre floated downstream, still pouring out their song of grief.

Orpheus & maenads.jpg

Gluck’s opera has a happier ending.

Act I: In a forest of laurels and cypress trees, shepherds and nymphs mourn Eurydice.  Orpheus laments his wife’s death.

Cupid tells Orpheus that the gods have taken pity on him; he can descend into Hades and try to bring his wife back.  Orpheus resolves to make the attempt.

Act II: The underworld.  A frightening, rocky landscape.  In the distance, a thick, dark smoke rises, and flames burst out of the ground.

Gluck 1859

Orpheus approaches a group of terrifying spectres and spirits…

His music sways them, and they let him enter Hades.  He comes to the Elysian Fields, abode of the virtuous dead, where the Blessed Spirits enjoy the charms of the afterlife.  There, he comes face to face with his wife.

Act III: Orpheus leads Eurydice back through the underworld’s dark caverns and maze of twisty little passages.  Because her husband will not look at her, Eurydice fears that he does not love her.  Death, she feels, is preferable to a life of suffering.

Orpheus, unable to resist her tears, looks at her – and she falls dead.  He expresses his grief in the opera’s most famous aria:

He is about to stab himself when Cupid stops him.  Orpheus has proven his steadfastness and his faith, and so the god brings Eurydice back to life.  In a magnificent temple dedicated to love, all celebrate Eurydice’s return to life, and the victory of true love.


COMMENTARY

4 stars

Act II - Orphée and Furies.JPG

Orfeo is a classic.  (Or, given the Greek myth, a Classic.)  It’s the first of Gluck’s reform operas, the works that sounded the death knell of Metastasian opera, with its da capo arias, preening castrati, and subordination of drama to music.  Or, to put it differently, shows where virtuoso singers entertained the punters.

Gluck was serious about making opera serious.  Here, he:

  • Unifies the drama.  Instead of long formal arias and choruses, separated by recitative, Gluck mixes them all together (notably in the opera’s first scene).  This loosens the opera’s structure, so that it moves swiftly and easily.  Content, as Sondheim would say a couple of centuries later, dictates form.
  • Made recitatives more dramatic.  They’re part of the opera, rather than “as in the conventional style, mere padding to fill up the space between arias” (Ernest Newman).   The recitatives are accompanied by the orchestra (stromentato), rather than just by the basso continuo (secco).  Iphigénie en Tauride will show just how innovative Gluck’s use of the orchestra can be, depicting the characters’ emotions rather than describing their actions.

These are hugely important historical developments (although critics say that Rameau and Lully influenced Gluck).  Mozart, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Berlioz and Wagner will all build on Gluck.

So Orfeo is historically important. It’s also Gluck’s most popular work, probably due to “Che farò senza Euridice”, one of the most heart-rendingly beautiful arias in opera.  (The devil whispers that it’s also short – a mere hour and a quarter, compared to nearly three hours for Armide, and two hours each for Iphigénie en Aulide and en Tauride.)

It is, though, a long way from Gluck’s best work.  There are, besides “Che farò”, wonderfully imaginative passages: the lament that opens the opera; the whole Furies scene; and the serene Dance of the Blessed Spirits, as blissed-out as it is blessed.

But the opera is (whisper it low) undramatic.  This pastoral tale is a long cry from the two Iphigénie operas, which focus on conflict between human beings, between man and the gods, and between private passions and duty.  (I have yet to hear Armide, supposedly one of Gluck’s masterpieces.)

Here, there are no subplots, and little excitement.  As Newman says, “the dramatic interest was small; there were only two real personages and only one emotion”.  Newman doesn’t count Cupid, an allegorical representation of love, as a character; otherwise, the cast consists of Orpheus and his wife Eurydice, who’s a) dead, and b) only appears halfway through.

Like many experiments, it’s halfway between the old style and the masterworks to come.  Both Berlioz and Newman, for instance, believed that Gluck hadn’t quite escaped from the customs of the time.  (O tempora, O moray, as the man said when the eel bit him.)

Like Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable or Beethoven’s early symphonies, it announces that here is a new way of composing, but one can still see the influence of the old style; it’s not until the master’s later works that his approach finds its true, full form.


RECORDINGS

Check out Gramophone’s Orfeo discography.

Orfeo - Gardiner

Vienna version (with counter-tenor): John Eliot Gardiner’s 1991 Philips / Decca recording, with Derek Lee Ragin (Orfeo), Sylvia McNair (Euridice), and Cynthia Sleden (Amor), with the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir.

Orfeo - Jacobs.jpgVienna version (with mezzo): René Jacobs’ 2001 Harmonia Mundi recording, with Bernarda Fink (Orfeo), Verónica Cangemi (Euridice), and Maria Cristina Kiehr (Amor), with the Freiburger Barockorchester and the RIAS Kammerchor, Berlin.

Gluck - Orphée - Minkowski.jpgParis version: Marc Minkowski’s 2004 Archi CD recording, with Richard Croft (Orphée), Mireille Delunsch (Eurydice), Marion Harousseau, and Claire Delgado-Boge, with Les Musiciens du Louvre, Grenoble.

32. Paride ed Elena – Christoph Willibald Gluck

PARIDE ED ELENA

Dramma per musica

By Christoph Willibald Gluck

Libretto: Ranieri de’ Calzabigi

First performed: Burgtheater, Vienna, 3 November 1770

Dossier


Gluck, let’s face it, has a reputation.  Noble, high-minded, austere, but also dull – as poised and as marmoreal as a Classical statue.  “Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null, / Dead perfection, no more” (as the poet says).

This reputation is, let it be said, misplaced.  Gluck’s works are intense, subordinating music to drama (anticipating and earning the approval of Wagner), and with memorable tunes to boot.  Nevertheless, his operas can be an acquired taste.  Those who think opera is passionate melodrama in Italian, ending with a dead soprano, may be nonplussed by Gluck’s eighteenth century treatment of Greek legends.

In the wrong hands, even Orfeo ed Euridice, his most popular work, can seem as remote and antiquated (if not downright antediluvian) as Monteverdi’s Orfeo of 1607.

You don’t have to make any allowances, though, for Paride ed Elena, a work as lovely and as warmly alive as its heroine.


SYNOPSIS

Paris, Prince of Troy, has come to Sparta to win Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world.  In most accounts, she’s the wife of Menelaus, Sparta’s king; here, she’s only betrothed to him.  Aphrodite, goddess of love, promised Paris Helen’s love, as a reward for giving her the golden apple.

Rubens - Judgement of Paris.jpg

“Here we are dealing with a young lover, who stands in contrast with the strange humours of a proud and virtuous woman, and who, with all the art of ingenuous passion, ends by triumphing over her.” – Gluck

Act I

The opera opens on the Spartan coast, where Paris’s followers are making offerings to Venus, imploring her to prosper Paris’s venture.

Paris enters, and describes his longing for Helen.

Eraste, Helen’s adviser, invites Paris to the palace.  He knows why Paris has come, and Venus herself will help him.  Of course he knows; Eraste is Cupid in disguise.

Act II

Paris and Helen’s first meeting, in the Spartan throne room.  Love at first sight?  Hardly; both are attracted, but Helen resists Paris’s flattery.

Paris starts to doubt his chances of winning Helen; only Venus’s promises still give him hope.

Act III

Paris and Helen watch the Spartan athletes perform gymnastics in the palace courtyard.  (Presumably this isn’t an authentic historical recreation; the Viennese censor would have raised objections to a nude chorus.)  Helen asks Paris to sing her a Trojan song, and Paris sings an early version of “Drink to me only with thine eyes”.

Helen realises that he’s serenading (and trying to seduce) her, and orders him to stop.  Paris collapses, and Helen sends Eraste for help.  As Paris recovers, Helen wonders whether she should stay with him or leave.  Ernest Newman considered the following duet, which “opposes Helen’s sense of duty to the passion of Paris”, “the finest psychological expression in the whole opera”.

Act IV

Paris persists in pestering the princess.  This time it’s through a letter, urging her to elope with him.  She writes a reproachful letter, which Eraste hands to Paris.  He presses his case in a trio and duet…

…but Helen, about to yield, orders him to leave and forget her.  Easy to say, replies Paris; has she looked at herself?

Alone, Helen is torn between love and duty, but resolves to be virtuous.

Act V

Eraste (who is, of course, Cupid in disguise) tells Helen that Paris has left.  Distraught, she warns women not to trust men’s tears and sighs.

This is a trick to make her reveal her feelings, and it works.  Paris appears, and Helen at last agrees to go with him to Troy.  Not even Pallas Athene, descending from heaven, can make them change their minds; not even the doom of Troy.


COMMENTARY

5 stars

Helen of Troy, legend says, was the most beautiful woman in the world – and Gluck’s opera is one of the most beautiful I know.

But it didn’t capture the heart of Paris.  Paris, in fact, never knew this Helen.  It was performed in Vienna; the Viennese were, apparently, nonplussed; and, unlike Alceste or Orfeo, it was never staged in nor retooled for France.

It’s hard to say why Gluck didn’t bring Helen to Paris.  It lacks, as Gluck himself admitted, the dramatic power of other works – no fathers sacrificing their children or wives dying to save their husbands – but for sheer musical pleasure, it stands in a class of its own among his works.

“It does not provide the composer,” Gluck wrote in the score’s dedication, “with those strong passions, those great images, those tragic situations which, in Alceste, move the spectators so deeply, and give such great opportunities for artistic effect.  So that in this music one must not expect to find the same force and energy; just as, in a picture representing a subject in full light, one would not expect the same effects of chiaroscuro, the same contrasts, as in a picture painted in half-light…”

The score is warm and expressive, full of 18th century grace.  The story is simple; it moves in a straight line, without any complications, yet holds the attention throughout.  Paris pursues, Helen resists, until she yields to his love at the end – but that love, we are told by Pallas (not so much the wise Athene, grey-eyed counsellor of gods and heroes, as the jealous goddess who destroyed Arachne), will lead to war.

The score clearly influenced Mozart (and can be compared to his operas without doing either a disservice).  The chorus “Vieni al mar” anticipates “Scenda amor” in Idomeneo, while the orchestral opening to the last scene sounds a lot like “Soave al vento”!  Likewise, one can hear Rossini’s opera seria in Paris’ lyrical wooing of Helen in Act III, where he melts her reserve by the pure beauty of the voice.

Anyone who hasn’t tried Gluck’s operas, or who is still unconvinced, will also be melted by Paride’s beauty, and fall in love with Elena and her creator.


RECORDING

McCreesh ParideMagdalena Kozená (Paride), Susan Gritton (Elena), Carolyn Sampson (Amore), and  Gillian Webster (Pallide), with the Gabrieli Consort and Players, conducted by Paul McCreesh.  Deutsche Grammophon 0289 477 5415 2.

30. Il trovatore (Giuseppe Verdi)

IL TROVATORE

By Giuseppe Verdi

Libretto: Salvatore Cammarano, completed by Leone Emanuele Bardare, based on Antonio Garcia Gutiérrez’s play El Trovador

First performed: Teatro Apollo, Rome, 19 January 1853

Dossier


SYNOPSIS

The backdrop of the opera is the Spanish wars of the early fifteenth century.  After Martin I of Aragon died in 1410 without surviving legitimate issue, the nobility elected Fernando de Antequera, prince of Castile, king through the Compromise of Caspe.  Ferdinand I of Aragon, named the Just, ruled from 1412 to 1416, but Jaume II d’Urgell, Count of Urgel, a rival claimant to the throne, refused to acknowledge his cousin as king.  Jaume was twice defeated in battle, besieged in the castle of Balaguer, and surrendered to Ferdinand in 1413.

ACT ONE: THE DUEL

We’re at the Aljaferia Palace in Zaragoza, north-western Spain, stronghold of the Count of Luna, commander of Fernando’s army, who is in love with Leonora.  Leonora, though, loves a mysterious troubadour, Manrico, who serenades her every evening.  The Count has ordered his men to watch for the troubadour.

To while away the time, Ferrando, captain of the guard, tells the story of the Count of Luna’s younger brother Garzia.

trovatore 1One morning an old gypsy woman was found standing over Garzia’s cradle.  She claimed to be casting the baby’s horoscope, but the boy fell sick.  The old Count thought the gypsy had put a curse on the child, and had her burnt at the stake.  In revenge, the woman’s daughter stole the child – and a child’s half-burnt skeleton was found at the funeral pyre.  The old Count, though, believed his son was still alive, and, before he died, asked his son, the present Count (are you following this?), to search for his younger brother – to no avail.  The daughter vanished, and her mother’s ghost is believed to haunt the castle as a raven or an owl.  Those who see her die of fear.

Leonora is waiting for her lover, the troubadour – whom she first met at a tournament before the civil war.

While she goes to her rooms, the Count arrives, aflame with desire.  He hears the troubadour serenade Leonora’s window from the garden, and she comes down, eager to meet her lover.  She mistakes the Count for her lover; Manrico reveals himself as Urgel’s follower, a wanted man; and the two men go off to fight a duel.

trovatore 2.PNG

Between the two acts: Manrico spares the Count’s life, moved by a strange pity.  Later, at the battle of Pelilla, the two men fight again, and Manrico falls.  Azucena finds him and nurses him back to health.

ACT TWO: THE GYPSY WOMAN

Act I scene 2.JPEGA gypsy camp in the mountains of Biscay.  In the famous Anvil Chorus, the gypsies celebrate their life – particularly the gypsy maid (“la zingarella”).

Azucena, Manrico’s mother, stares into the campfire, and remembers when her own mother was burnt alive.

 

After the gypsy band have left, she tells Manrico the story of his grandmother’s death.  Her mother was falsely accused of bewitching the old Count of Luna’s son, and burnt at the stake.  Azucena followed her to the stake, cradling her baby in her arms.  “Avenge me!” her mother urged her, before she died.  Azucena stole the Count’s son and took him to the flames – but in her grief, she threw her own son into the fire.  Who then, Manrico wants to know, is he?  Her son, Azucena tells him; forget what she said; sometimes she gets confused.  She makes him swear to kill the Count.  A messenger tells Manrico that Leonora, believing him dead, will become a nun.  Ignoring Azucena’s attempts to restrain him, he rides off to the convent outside Castellor to rescue her.

The Count has also come to the convent; he intends to abduct her from the altar by force.  Before he can do so, however, the troubadour appears, and takes her away with him.

ACT THREE: THE GYPSY WOMAN’S SON

The Count’s army prepares to attack the fort of Castellor, where Manrico and Leonora have taken refuge.  The soldiers capture Azucena, who is skulking around the camp, looking for her son.  Ferrando recognizes her as the woman who burnt the Count’s son, and she reveals that she’s Manrico’s mother.  She is sentenced to be burnt alive, like her mother.

Inside the fort, Manrico and Leonora await the Count’s assault the next day.  Today, though, they will marry.  Before they can go down to the altar, another messenger tells Manrico that his mother has been captured.  He resolves to rescue her.

trovatore 5.PNG

ACT FOUR: THE EXECUTION

Once again we’re at the Aliaferia palace, at night.  Manrico has been captured, and both he and his mother will be executed at dawn.  Leonora offers herself to the Count in exchange for Manrico’s freedom – but she takes poison concealed in her ring.  He will have her cold and lifeless.

In their prison cell, Manrico and Azucena await the dawn.  Azucena is terrified of the stake, and Manrico comforts her, singing her to sleep.

trovatore 6.PNG

Leonora tells Manrico that he is free to go – but he repulses her angrily when he learns the price she paid for his freedom.  She dies in his arms, as the Count watches.  Manrico is dragged off to the block.  Azucena wakes up.  “Where is my son?”  About to be executed, the Count tells her, and takes her to the window so she can see.  “He was your brother!” Azucena tells him; “Mother, you are avenged!”  “And I still live!” cries the Count.  Curtain.


COMMENTARY

4 stars

Il Trovatore is one of Verdi’s Big Three, the popular operas he composed in the early 1850s.  It’s also the odd one out.

The works on either side – Rigoletto (1851) and La traviata (1853) – are innovative, tightly dramatic and introduce naturalistic characterization.

Trovatore seems a throwback to the Verdi’s early galley operas.  It’s close to Ernani (1844) or I Masnadieri (1847) with its stereotypical romantic triangle, exiled tenor hero, brigands, swordfights, battles, and warring brothers fighting over the heroine.

Trovatore also has a reputation.  Great music, strong drama, bizarre and incomprehensible story.  “I think it’s the stupidest plot in all of opera,” a friend said when I told her it was next on my list.  Jokes about it abound; Gilbert and Sullivan parodied it, and the Marx Brothers memorably sent it up in A Night at the Opera (1935).

That was eighty-two years ago, and the opera is still played around the world.

It’s certainly not a foolproof opera.  Caruso said that it’s easy to stage, provided you have the four greatest singers in the world.  Some old-fashioned productions treat it as a vehicle for the voices – the singers sing, and to hell with the drama.  (The 1988 Met production with Pavarotti and Eva Marton does that, and the result is unconvincing.)  The recent fad is to update it to the Spanish Civil War, to make it more “relevant”, with mixed results.

The opera can work, and work well, if it’s played straight and acted with sincerity – babies, bonfires, and all.  The 1975 Berlin Staatskapelle production does this, and it works beautifully.

The key to appreciating Trovatore lies in understanding Verdi’s aesthetics.  Verdi wasn’t interested in naturalism, but in human nature.

To imitate the truth slavishly may be a good occupation, but to find the truth through one’s imagination is better, much better.  The words “to discover the truth through one’s imagination” are only seemingly a contradiction in terms; just try to look for the truth in the pope’s words – I mean to say in Shakespeare’s. Falstaff may have possibly crossed his path; but he has hardly ever met an archvillain of Iago’s sort and certainly never the angelic characters of Cordelia, Imogena, Desdemona – and how full of true feeling are these personalities!  To imitate the truth faithfully may be a beautiful occupation.  But it is then mere photography, not painting.

It’s striking that Verdi uses Imogen as an example.  Imogen is the heroine of Cymbeline, a play criticized for its convoluted plot, incongruities, and anachronisms.  The story involves stolen babies (as in Trovatore); a heroine falsely accused of infidelity, and who mistakes the headless corpse of her would-be rapist for her lover’s; a wicked queen, invading Romans, cross-dressing, and ghosts.  Jupiter comes down from heaven to resolve the plot.  The events might be fantastical, but the sentiments ring true.

That was what Verdi understood by imaginative drama: the mixture of the fantastic and the true that he found in Shakespeare.

The action of Trovatore is abrupt, the events bizarre, but the strong situations – however unlikely they may seem – allowed him to study emotions.  Azucena, torn between her mother’s dying command, “Avenge me!”, and her love for her son, no son.  The two enemy army commanders, rivals for the same woman, and, unbeknownst to them, brothers.

trovatore 3

One of the criticisms of the opera is that it is poorly motivated; the action may be exciting, but that action seems to arise out of nowhere.  Messengers appear, as in Greek tragedy, and announce that a battle has been lost, that Leonora is going to take the veil, or that Azucena has been captured and condemned to death.  Ferrando and Azucena talk about things that happened long ago – but the characters know little of why they fight and struggle.  They’re creatures of action, but they act blindly.  Manrico and the Count do not know they are brothers, Manrico does not know he is not Azucena’s son, Leonora does not know that her lover is the gypsy’s son.  The only person who knows the truth is Azucena, and her agenda is her own.  Is she Manrico’s loving mother, or is she using him to avenge her mother?

The opera, though, is less illogical than it appears.  Accept the basic premise – that Azucena threw the wrong baby on the fire – and everything else follows.  (As someone with a long experience of setting fire to small children, I can see how she might make the mistake; one tyke is much like another.)

By halfway through the second act, the audience should have worked out the tangled story.  Leonora mistakes the Count for Manrico.  This is what detective story writers would call a clue; she makes the mistake because the two men physically resemble each other.  Azucena admits that she threw the wrong baby on the fire; who, then, is Manrico?  Manrico could not kill the Count – because, subconsciously, he recognizes that they are brothers.

Through the opera runs a leitmotif of fire, lighting up the fantastical action with a lurid, hellish glare.   Azucena’s mother burnt alive at the stake.  Azucena hurling her own child into the flames.  The guards huddled around the fire, listening to a ghost story.  Azucena staring into the gypsy campfire, remembering her mother’s death.  Leonora’s passion for her unknown troubadour is “a dangerous flame”, while the Count’s “spurned and jealous love burns … with a terrible flame”.  Azucena sentenced to be burnt at the stake, as her mother died.  Manrico’s vow to rescue his mother from that pyre.

And those flames, like old sins, cast long shadows.


RECORDINGS

Erede Trovatore.jpgListen to: Alberto Erede’s 1956 recording starring Mario del Monaco (Manrico), Giulietta Simoniato (Azucena), Renata Tebaldi (Leonora), and Ugo Savarese (di Luna).

Watch: The 1975 Berlin production, conducted by Bruno Bartoletti, starring Franco Bonisolli (Manrico), Viorica Cortez (Azucena), Raina Kabaivanska (Leonora), and Giorgio Zancanaro (di Luna).

28. Il pirata – Vincenzo Bellini

IL PIRATA

Opera seria in 2 acts

By Vincenzo Bellini

Libretto: Felice Romani

First performed: La Scala, Milan, 27 October 1827

Dossier.


SYNOPSIS

Di mia vendetta ho pieno il mondo…
Ma indarno.  Il vile Ernesto,
Il mio persecutor, vive ed esulta
Dell’ingiusto mio bando e di mie pene…

BlackbeardPirates!  Who doesn’t love a good pirate story?  Wooden-legged men, cursed treasure, talking parrots, the Black Spot, battles at sea, and murderous rogues who set their beards on fire…

None of them are here.

We’re not yet in the Golden Age of Piracy; this is Sicily in the 13th century, and the pirate – Gualtiero by name – is a ruined Sicilian nobleman.  (Who ever heard of a pirate called Walter?  Pirates have proper pirate-y names like Captain Blood.)

Gualtiero, former Count of Montaldo, backed the wrong side in a war between King Manfredi and the house of Anjou.  Ernesto, Duke of Caldora, defeated him in battle; the victorious Angevins banished him from Sicily; and he became leader of a band of pirates.  Gualtiero vowed to wreak bloody revenge on his enemies.

Ten years later, Gualtiero’s fleet is destroyed in a sea battle off the Sicilian coast.  The opera begins in the aftermath.

ACT I

While a storm rages overhead, the survivors row for the shore.  A chorus prays for their safety, and helps them to reach land.  (Verdi, more than half a century later, remembered this powerful scene when he wrote Otello.)

Gualtiero is among the survivors.  He tells his former tutor, now a hermit, that only his love for Imogene has sustained him over the last decade.

Unfortunately for him, Imogene has married Ernesto, his mortal enemy.  She may be Duchess of Caldora, but she still loves Gualtiero.  (Where would Italian opera be without a romantic triangle?)

Imogene arrives to help the survivors.  She’s afraid that Gualtiero might be dead; she’s had visions of seeing a bleeding corpse on a barren, deserted strand, but all nature is deaf to her tears and sorrow.  The mariners tell her that they’re innocent shipwrecked sailors (and certainly not bloodthirsty murdering pirates with peg legs and a parrot on each shoulder).  She invites the survivors to the castle, where they drink and make merry – rather than slaughtering everyone in the castle.

Only Gualtiero seems to have some idea of the proper behavior for a pirate.  He confronts Imogene, who tells him that Ernesto imprisoned her father and forced her to marry him.

Bah, says Gualtiero!  He whips out his cutlass and threatens to slice Imogene’s son in two – but he’s moved by her tears.  (He’s a softy at heart.)

Ernesto, Imogene’s villainous husband, arrives with his men – and he isn’t pleased to learn that his wife’s filled the castle with strange men.  Could they, he wonders, be pirates?  He interrogates Itulbo, Gualtiero’s lieutenant.  No, sir – (arrrr Jim lad, pieces o’ eight, pieces o’ eight) – no pirates here.  Ernesto isn’t convinced.  He threatens to lock them up until they can prove their bona fides, but Imogene persuades him to let them go.  Gualtiero, though, demands that the two former lovers meet, and threatens to kill her family unless she consents.  “This will be the last night for you, your husband, and your son!”  Imogene collapses.

ACT II

This is Italian opera, so everybody ends miserably, but they sing beautifully.  Ernesto’s an unfeeling husband; he thinks Imogene’s sickness is only shamming.  (What can you expect from a husband whose idea of proposal is to throw his beloved’s father into a dungeon?)  More, he thinks she’s cheating on him – she loves Gualtiero!  Imogene reminds him that when she married him she loved Gualtiero, but she only loves Gualtiero’s memory.  (Something about threatening twice to kill her family might have cooled her feelings.)  And no, she hasn’t betrayed him.  Ernesto’s ready to believe her – until he learns Gualtiero is in the castle.  I’ll kill him – and you too, says Ernesto.  Not if he kills you first, retorts Imogene.

Gualtiero tries to persuade Imogene to flee with him, but she will be virtuous; she tells him to live and forgive.  Ernesto surprises them; Imogene urges Gualtiero to flee.  Flee?  I’ve wanted to kill your husband for ten years, Gualtiero retorts, and now I can!  The two men rejoice that the day of revenge and fury has arrived, and rush off, swords in hand.

Gualtiero kills Ernesto.  Rather than taking to the high seas, he surrenders to the Duke’s men, and is condemned to death.  Imogene goes mad.  Gualtiero’s men rush in to try to save him, there’s a pitched battle between the pirates and the knights (sounds like an idea for a Hollywood blockbuster!), and Gualtiero stabs himself while leaping off a bridge.


COMMENTARY

3 stars.png

Rubini_as_Gualtiero-IL_PIRATA_-Oct_1827

For an opera called The Pirate, this isn’t very pirate-y.  Not a Jolly Roger in sight, only a melancholy Walter!

It’s an enjoyable melodrama, with plenty of opportunities for singers to show off their voices.  The opera abounds in the meltingly lovely, long melodic lines for which Bellini is famous; listen to the “Pietosa al padre!” section from Gualtiero and Imogene’s first duet, or Imogene’s mad scene.

The situation and characters may seem conventional, but Bellini and his librettist Romani introduced most of those conventions here.  This is the first true Italian Romantic opera.

It is one of the earliest historical costume melodramas focusing on a tenor / soprano / baritone love triangle.  Gualtiero, the brooding Byronic antihero, is the father of many of Verdi’s early tenor leads: a damned soul, with a tender side: “un magnanimo cor degenerato / Per avverso destin”.

Imogene is less interesting; she suffers passively, trapped in a loveless forced marriage but loving Gualtiero.  “Io stessa, io stessa / Inconsolabil vivo.”  But she sets the fashion for Italian prime donne for the next couple of decades by going mad in white satin.

The opera also marks the end of the age of Rossini.  The musical style is Rossinian, but hardly in sentiment.  The opera was written for three of the leading Rossini singers of the day; the singing style, as in Rossini’s serious operas, is florid, demanding agility of voice; and many of the pieces follow the Coda Rossini, the structure Rossini formalized in his operas.

Bellini, though, is a Romantic.  “Opera must make people weep, shudder and die through singing!”  Rossini is semi-Classical, even Baroque; his operas bridge the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century, looking as far back as Handel with their armour-bearing contralti in travesti.  His music is full of brilliant vocal fireworks, and in his elaborate ensembles, he treats the voice more as instrument than as the expression of an individual’s soul.  Joyous, exhilarating, serenely beautiful – and fundamentally extraverted.

Bellini’s music is introspective in a way that Rossini’s seldom is; it paints inner emotions – particularly suffering and pathos; and it is dramatically expressive, closely moulded to the word.

Bellini was conscious of the novelty of his approach.  There’s a famous anecdote that he persuaded the tenor to act, rather than just sing.  Giovanni Battista Rubini was considered the greatest tenor in the world, with a chest range of two octaves, from C to G, carried up to F by “head notes”.  One thing Rubini didn’t do was act.

They started to rehearse the duet between Gualtiero and Imogene.  But soon they met with the same difficulties as before and exclaimed, “You don’t put half of the soul you’ve got into it!  Here, where you could easily move the public, you’re cold and languid.  Put some passion into it?  Have you never been in love?”

Rubini didn’t say a word to this, as he was very confused.  Then the maestro said, using a rather sweeter voice, “Dear Rubini, do you think you’re Rubini or Gualtiero?  Don’t you know that your voice is a goldmine not entirely discovered?  Listen to me, I beg you, and one day you’ll be grateful.  You are one of the best artists.  Nobody can be your equal in bravura singing.  But this isn’t enough!”

“I understand what you mean, but I cannot despair or enrage myself just for the sake of make-believe,” Rubini answered.

“The truth is that my music doesn’t please you because it doesn’t give you the usual opportunities.  But if I have in mind a new style and a music that can express completely the words and form a union of singing and drama, should I give it up because you don’t want to [work] with me?  In fact, you can co-operate with me, provided that you forget yourself and put yourself into the soul of the character that you represent.  Look how it should be done.”

So Bellini started to sing.  In spite of his undistinguished voice, inspired, he was moving to such an extent that he could have roused even the hardest of men.  Deeply moved, Rubini followed with his outstanding voice.

“Bravo, Rubini.  There you are, you have understood me!  I’m happy.  I will expect you to do the same tomorrow.  Above all, always remember to practice while standing and accompany yourself with gestures.”

(Stelios Galatopoulos.  Bellini: Life, Times, Music.  London: Sanctuary Publishing, 2002, p. 65)

It’s surprising to learn that Rossinian singers weren’t expected to act.  Contemporary critics had praised the mezzo-soprano Isabella Colbran’s acting; from the moment she stepped on stage, they wrote, she became Elizabeth I or Desdemona.  Many of Rossini’s later operas – particularly Ermione (a bel canto Elektra), the last act of Otello, the erotic Armida, and Semiramide, with its guilt-ridden queen, incest, and matricide – were psychologically intense, gripping music dramas.

I much prefer Rossini to Bellini, and don’t think Il pirata measures up to Rossini’s mature masterpieces – but Bellini’s close attention to conveying emotions and text through music influenced some of his greatest successors.

Verdi praised Bellini’s “truth and power of expression”, while Wagner wrote: “Bellini is one of my predilections because his music is strongly felt and intimately bound up with the words.  The music which I abhor, on the contrary, is that vague, indeterminate music that mocks libretto and situations.”

Il pirata’s storms, shipwrecks, and brooding seaman who has wandered the oceans for a decade, kept going by the hope of a woman’s love, surely also influenced The Flying Dutchman.

There’s also an interesting link to a great composer from the past.  Il pirata was Bellini’s breakthrough opera, and it was his first work performed in the US.  Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, translated the libretto for the performances in the 1830s.  It was, he said, “a splendid amusement”.

Melodramatic and full of beautiful music, Il pirata certainly is “a splendid amusement”.

As an opera about pirates, though, it gets the Black Spot.


RECORDINGS

The best recording I’ve heard is the 2003 Amsterdam performance, conducted by Giuliano Carella, starring Nelly Miricioiu (Imogene), Stefano Secco (Gualtiero), and Albert Shagidullin (Ernesto).  This is an unofficial recording, available from House of Opera.

Pirata - Opera RaraOf the commercial recordings, Parry’s 2012 recording for Opera Rara and Gavazzeni’s 1970 recording for EMI (with Montserrat Caballé) are both solid.

Pirata - Caballe

22. La forza del destino – Giuseppe Verdi

LA FORZA DEL DESTINO

Opera in 4 acts

By Giuseppe Verdi

Librettist: Francesco Maria Piave, after Ángel de Saavedra’s
Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino (1835)

First performed: Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia, 10 November 1862.

Revised version: La Scala, Milan, 27 February 1869.

Reception: The premiere in St Petersburg was only a muted success, and Verdi, unhappy with the work, revised it for Italy.  It did well enough for much of the later nineteenth century, but hit low ebb in the early twentieth century, when Wagnerian aesthetics dominated.  Since then, it’s become regularly performed.  It’s supposed to be cursed, though.  Pavarotti refused to perform in it, and clutched his testicles whenever it was mentioned, in case the scenery collapsed on him or (as happened to one baritone) he dropped dead onstage.

Dossier.


COMMENTARY

4 stars

Alexandre_Charles_Lecocq_-_Giuseppe_Verdi_-_La_forza_del_destino.jpgLa forza del destino is a vast, even unwieldy, opera – and one of Verdi’s most difficult works.  He mixes scenes, moods and operatic styles in an opera that takes place over nearly a decade, and, its critics say, violates every notion of dramatic unity and common sense.

Don Alvaro (tenor) – an Incan prince in disguise – accidentally kills his girlfriend Leonora’s (soprano) father, the Marquis of Calatrava.  He throws down his gun, which promptly goes off and shoots the old man, who hangs onto life just long enough to curse his daughter.  Don Carlo di Vargas, her brother (baritone), vows to find both her and her lover, and kill her.  Leonora puts on a monk’s robe and becomes a hermit living in a cave.  We don’t see her again until the end.

Don Carlo enlists in the Spanish army, and swears an oath of friendship with another officer – who turns out to be Don Alvaro!  The two fight a duel.  Don Alvaro becomes a monk, but Don Carlo pursues him to the monastery, and goads him into another duel by calling him racist names.  Don Alvaro fatally wounds him – outside a hermit’s cell.  The hermit appears – it’s Leonora!  Don Carlo kills her, and then dies.  (In the opera’s original version, composed for St Petersburg, Don Alvaro then hurled himself off a cliff.)

Act IV.png

And the opera is full of gypsy girls, beggars, pedlars, and monks.  And the soprano doesn’t appear for half the opera!

“It is hard to decide,” Michael Forman (The Good Opera Guide, 1994) writes, “whether Verdi was just out of practice, wasn’t really trying, or had temporarily lost his marbles.”

If one views the play from a Classical perspective, as many critics seem to do, the work necessarily seems a mess.  But it’s not Classical; it’s a Romantic opera, written under the influence of Victor Hugo.

Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino, the play on which Verdi based his opera, was written by the Duke of Rivas, a liberal man of letters and devotee of Hugo.  The opera, as one early review recognized, puts the principles of Hugo’s Preface to Cromwell, effectively the Romantic manifesto, into practice: mixing high-born and low-born characters, comedy and tragedy, the ugly and the beautiful, to show the world in all its complexity.

The opera doesn’t violate the Aristotelian unities of time and place so much as ignore them; it’s not interested in them.  Instead, the opera’s aesthetics are based on kaleidoscopic variety.

Scene follows scene in dizzying array: aristocratic mansions; taverns in Spanish villages; monasteries; battlefields and military encampments during the War of Austrian Succession.  Smaller roles proliferate: Preziosilla the gypsy girl (a cousin to Carmen) singing French opéra comique-style arias; and the grumpy monk Fra Melitone, a Rossinian buffo bass.

Other sections of the score nod to opera and symphonic music.  The overture has often been called Beethovenian, the monks’ curse and prayer is French grand opéra (modelled on Meyerbeer’s Blessing of the Swords), and Leonora’s arias are Bellinian in their long lines.

Verdi uses the chorus as a protagonist in its own right, as Meyerbeer did in his grand operas (notably in Les Huguenots and Le prophète) and Mussorgsky did in Boris Godunov (clearly influenced by both Meyerbeer and Forza).  In Verdi’s earlier operas, the chorus was often a faceless group; block-like assemblies of types (bandits, soldiers, sailors), who sing en masse, and mainly exist to provide musical backing to the lead singers.  Here the chorus are crowds of individuals: guests at a Spanish tavern, watching dances, and praying as pilgrims pass by; soldiers in a military encampment, gambling and drinking; war victims asking for food from a monastery.  They are humanity celebrating and suffering.

All of this was necessary for Verdi to write what he called “an opera of ideas”.  Like Meyerbeer and Wagner, he used the broader dimensions of grand opera for a philosophical work.

Forza is an opera about the role chance (or fate) plays in our lives, despite our good intentions – and how we deal with this.

We can never fully control our lives, Verdi suggests, because they are changed by outside forces.  The chance firing of a pistol, thrown down by a man trying to avert bloodshed, ruins the lives of the Calatrava clan, sending them into a years-long spiral of pursuit, hatred, revenge and fratricide.  On a larger scale, we are caught up in the events of history.  Larger events and social forces – politics, war, poverty, starvation – affect the masses.  We may not be able to control our lives, but, as the Padre Guardiano tells the monk Melitone, we can have compassion for those who suffer.

The St Petersburg version is nihilistic.  It ends with a stage littered with corpses, and Don Alvaro’s howl of despair against the universe as he leaps to his death: “I am a messenger from hell!  Let the earth open!  May hell swallow me!  May the heavens fall!  And may mankind perish!”

Verdi was unhappy with the original ending, and changed it after meeting the writer Alessandro Manzoni, whom he considered a saint.

The second version ends on a note of Christian resignation, with Alvaro and the Padre Guardiano (Father Superior) kneeling by Leonora’s corpse.  Leonora may have died, but, she promises Alvaro, they will meet again in heaven.  Mankind, the opera suggests, cannot understand the ineffable; God (or, for the agnostic Verdi, the universe) moves in ways we cannot fathom, but there is a purpose to every action, even if we cannot grasp it.


MUSIC

The opera is theatrically effective, but listening to it on CD can be dispiriting, because it’s less tuneful than Verdi’s other mature operas.  Much of the opera is in functional arioso (heightened recitative), but there are a couple of great arias and some impressive set-pieces.

“Madre, pietosa Vergine!” – Leonora flees to the monastery for refuge from her brother, who plans to kill her.

“Il santo nome di Dio …  La vergine degli angeli” – The Padre Guardiano tells Leonora that she can become a hermit – but anyone who approaches her will be cursed.

The finale that ends the opera:


RECORDINGS

Forza DVD.jpgWatch: The 1984 Met performance, starring Leontyne Price (Leonora), Leo Nucci (Don Carlo) and Giuseppe Giacomini (Don Alvaro), conducted by James Levine.

Listen to: The 1955 Decca recording, starring Renata Tebaldi (Leonora), Mario Del Monaco (Don Alvaro), and Ettore Bastianini (Don Carlo), conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli.

20. Tosca – Giacomo Puccini

TOSCATosca poster

Melodrama in 3 acts

By Giacomo Puccini

Libretto: Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, after Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca (1887)

First performed : Teatro Costanzi, Rome, 14 January 1900

Dossier.


COMMENTARY

4 stars

Tosca is one of a half-dozen operas that everyone knows: the one where an opera singer (performed by an opera singer) performs “Vissi d’arte”, and knifes an over-enthusiastic admirer.

It’s one of the most popular examples of verismo opera, which focuses on realistic (often working class) characters and situations, violently intense emotions, and just plain violence.

Tosca has all of those: torture, attempted rape, murder, death by firing squad, and suicide.  But it’s a sophisticated work, and one with plenty of heart and great melodies.

The opera opens with a series of ominous, fortississimo chords associated with Baron Scarpia, Rome’s corrupt chief of police.  Scarpia lusts after the opera singer Floria Tosca, whose boyfriend Mario Cavaradossi is a revolutionary.  When Cavaradossi helps a political fugitive to flee, Scarpia arrests him and offers Tosca a bargain: save Cavaradossi’s life at the cost of her virtue.  Cavaradossi, though, must appear to die; he will face a firing squad, but the guns will be loaded with blanks.  Scarpia, though, has no intention of keeping his word; Cavaradossi is a rival, and must die.  Tosca accepts the odious bargain – and then stabs Scarpia to death.

The heroine is one of the great roles in all opera: a passionate, sensitive soul who lives only for art and for love, but who becomes a murderess.

Who is Floria?  What is she?  A spitfire?  A sophisticated woman of the world?  An innocent in a political world?  Headstrong, or vulnerable and uncertain?  Like all great roles, a talented actress can find new dimensions.  I say “actress”; the part calls for a soprano who can both sing and act, rather than planting herself at the front of the stage and delivering to the footlights.

Maria Callas was, many believe, the definitive Tosca.

In this 1964 Covent Garden production, her performance is mercurial, always in motion, balanced by Tito Gobbi’s portrayal of Scarpia as an ironic, laughing sadist – a man so in command he can remain suave and gentlemanly even while torturing and blackmailing his victims.  We see the moment when Tosca contemplates killing Scarpia; she lowers the wineglass to the table with almost glacial slowness.  She is ferocious in the murder, as implacable as Clytemnestra stabbing Agamemnon.  Even her forgiveness of the dead Scarpia sounds as inexorable as a hanging judge’s pronouncement.  The Greek soprano is a Eumenide.  Then she is desperate to flee from the scene of the crime – but she cannot.  She acts under compulsion, sobbing as she places the candles by the corpse, and kisses the crucifix that she lays on Scarpia’s breast.  She veers about the stage, looking for an escape, for a clue to her guilt, for anything left behind – and then the music calls her to her senses.  The drums sound, and she rushes from the stage, leaving the door open in her haste.

Shirley Verrett, in the Met’s 1978 production (online here), plays a more vulnerable Tosca.  She steels herself when Scarpia approaches her, and looks nauseated by his touch.  She spots the knife; the thought of murder enters her head; she recoils from both the knife and the idea, drinks wine to give herself courage…  The deed done, she is terrified by her act.  She almost flings the crucifix onto Scarpia, and stumbles blindly out.

The part of Tosca may call for a singing actress, but Puccini also uses the metatheatricality of the role for dramatic effect.  Tosca is an opera singer, a star of the stage – and reality and theatre blend around her.  Scarpia mockingly applauds her performance while she begs him not to torture Cavaradossi: “Tosca on the stage was never more tragic!”  She retells the murder as an encore performance for Cavaradossi.  We see how she would play it as an actress, but this also sanitises the crime; she distances herself from the deed while she turns the messy details of the murder into drama.  She gives directions to Cavaradossi how to play the death scene, and applauds his “acting” when he’s shot.  And here Puccini does something very clever.

Tosca thinks, until the very end, that she will get a happy ending.  Remember: the opera is set in 1800; this was the time of the rescue opera, in which villains may capture a husband or wife, but which invariably ended with tyrants defeated and lovers reunited.  (The most famous today is Beethoven’s Fidelio.)  She knows how this should go, based on her stage experience.  She hasn’t realised she’s in an Italian verismo opera circa 1900.

In the long, agonisingly long, execution scene, Puccini uses the difference between what she expects to happen and what is happening, to ratchet up the tension until strained nerves start to scream.

“How long is this waiting!” Tosca says.  “Why are they still delaying?  The sun already rises.  Why are they still delaying?  It’s only a comedy, I know, but this anguish seems to last for ever!”

She praises Cavaradossi’s performance – “There!  Die!  Ah, what an actor!” – and is radiantly happy until she turns over Cavaradossi, and realises that she’s been rejoicing at her lover’s death.

The action may be tragic, but, as William Berger (Puccini Without Tears, 2005) [1] suggests, works on several levels.  It’s simultaneously a gripping melodrama and an allegory about the triumph of love and liberty over cruelty and tyranny.

[1] Berger sees the opera as a conflict between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, building on Nietzsche, possibly via Peter Conrad.  It’s a brilliantly illuminating essay.

The opera pits revolutionaries (Cavaradossi and his friend Angelotti) against the despotism of Scarpia and the Bourbons, who ruled Rome at the time.  Napoleon, advancing on Rome, is seen as a redeemer, a bringer of liberty.  [2] When he hears of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo, Cavaradossi, who has just been tortured by Scarpia’s men, rises threateningly towards Scarpia and sings: “The avenging dawn now rises to make the wicked tremble!  And liberty returns, scourge of tyrants!”  When he learns she killed Scarpia, he calls Tosca an avenging angel, justice inspired by love.  Their final duet (as in Verdi’s Aida) is a sort of anthem, imagining the triumph, the apotheosis of love.  They may not enjoy that happiness here on Earth, but their souls will enjoy it in heaven.

  [2] This is partly the French source (Sardou’s play).  Illica also wrote the libretto for Franchetti’s Germania, where Napoleon is a despot.


IAGO’S FAN

Scarpia, in Act I, compares himself to Iago:

Per ridurre un geloso allo sbaraglio
Jago ebbe un fazzoletto, ed io un ventaglio!
Iago had a handkerchief, and I a fan
to drive a jealous lover to distraction!

Italian operagoers would have taken the reference to mean the character in Verdi’s Otello, not to Shakespeare’s villain.  Scarpia is, like Jago, a manipulator who lies to trap a couple and who turns another’s jealousy to his own ends.

On another level, it’s a statement of artistic purpose.  Puccini is declaring himself Verdi’s heir.  Verdi himself had heard Illica read his libretto to Sardou; more, he had, according to legend, “seized the manuscript from the librettist’s hand and read the passage [Cavaradossi’s farewell to life] in a voice trembling with emotion” (Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Puccini, 1983).

Just as La Bohème is descended from La traviata (Parisian setting, heroine who leaves boyfriend for what she thinks is his own good and who dies of consumption), here Puccini is using the complex, villainous Verdi baritone who’s the enemy of the couple in love.  He’s implicitly saying that he is the modern composer carrying on the Italian tradition, using Verdi’s tropes, set to modern, through-composed, post-Wagnerian music.


MUSICAL HIGHLIGHTS

“Tre sbirri, una carrozza”: The Act I finale.  Scarpia sends his men to follow Tosca; he will use her jealousy to capture both her and her lover Cavaradossi.  For him, the rope; for her, his arms.

 

“Vissi d’arte”.  Tosca’s great aria.  Scarpia has delivered his ultimatum: yield to him, or Cavaradossi gets it.  What, she asks God, has she done to deserve this?

 

“E lucevan le stelle”.  Cavaradossi’s farewell to life, and a tenor warhorse.


SUGGESTED RECORDINGS1976 Tosca.jpg

Watch: The 1976 film starring Raina Kabaivanska (Tosca), Plácido Domingo (Cavaradossi) and Sherill Milnes (Scarpia), with the Ambrosian Singers and New Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bruno Bartoletti.  The film, directed by Gianfranco de Bosio, was shot on site in Rome.

The 1978 Met Opera production starring Shirley Verrett (Tosca), Luciano Pavarotti (Cavaradossi) and Cornell MacNeil (Scarpia), conducted by James Conlon.  Directed by Tito Gobbi.

 

Callas Tosca.jpgListen to: The 1953 EMI recording starring Maria Callas (Tosca), Giuseppe Di Stefano (Cavaradossi) and Tito Gobbi (Scarpia), conducted by Victor de Sabata.

 

 

 

 

 

16. Macbeth – Giuseppe Verdi

MACBETH

Dramma lirico in 4 acts

By Giuseppe Verdi

Libretto: Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei, after Shakespeare’s play (1606)

First performed: Teatro della Pergola, Florence, 14 March 1847

Revised version: Théâtre Lyrique, Paris, 21 April 1865

Dossier.


RECORDINGS

Watch: The 1986 film starring Shirley Verrett and Leo Nucci, conducted by Riccardo Chailly:

Abbado Macbeth.jpgListen to: Verrett again, opposite Piero Cappucilli, in the 1976 Deutsche Grammophon recording conducted by Claudio Abbado.

A film of this production was broadcast on RAI:


REVIEW

4 stars

Verdi, like Berlioz and Wagner, was a Shakespeare fanboy.

“He is my favourite poet,” he told a critic; “I have known him from my childhood and read and reread him continually.”

Shakespeare inspired him to compose some of his finest operas, most famously Otello and Falstaff (based on The Merry Wives of Windsor and the Second Henriad).  He’d toyed with the idea of turning both Hamlet and King Lear into opera.  (The scene between Lear and Cordelia at the play’s end became the father­­–daughter duet in the last act of Luisa Miller.)

His adaptation of Macbeth is easily the best of Verdi’s early galley operas, which were too often full of sound and fury, signifying … little.  This is an intense, claustrophobic opera that points the way to Verdi’s mature masterworks.

Here he creates an atmosphere of palpable evil from the start.  The prelude, with its sinister figures on strings, harsh brass, and winds shrieking like the owl, describes the loneliness of damnation, lost in night and cut off from hope and every decent human feeling; it is as desolate as Herrmann’s score for Psycho.

The murder of Duncan is masterly.  Macbeth resolves to go through with the crime, and pursues the dagger of the mind that floats before him, marshalling him the way that he was going.  The bell strikes – “Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell / That summons thee to heaven or to hell”.  Macbeth stumbles out of the murder chamber, stricken with guilt and terror, and his wife tries to reassure him.

The murder is discovered, and the act ends in an ensemble that strikes like the wrath of God.

In Lady Macbeth, Verdi created one of his great roles for a soprano, a part that demands an actress as well as a singer.  He wanted Lady Macbeth to look ugly and evil – and called for a singer with a “hard, stifled and dark” voice, not a tweeting songbird.

Her sleepwalking scene is justly famous, Lady Macbeth singing in broken half-tones, a woman half-mad with guilt trying by candlelight to cleanse her hands of the blood only she can see.

The problem is Macbeth himself.  Verdi’s opera lacks a sense of Macbeth’s fall from greatness.

Macbeth’s tragedy, for Shakespeare, is that he sacrifices his conscience to ambition.  He may have been a “worthy noble”, loved by his king and esteemed by his peers, but once launched on his bloody career, there is no stopping him.  He becomes ever more ruthless, wading through blood to seize and secure the throne of Scotland, the milk of human kindness curdling in his breast.

Verdi’s character lacks inwardness.  Shakespeare’s tyrant may be a “butcher” and “Bellona’s bridegroom”, a man of war, but he is also sensitive and introspective, in thrall to his imagination and his nerves.  His good nature wars with ambition in his breast; he resolves not to go through with the bloody business of murdering Duncan, but his wife goads him into action (I.vi).  “Infirm of purpose!”  She disparages his manhood, accuses him of cowardice, and reassures him.  Verdi cuts this scene, which is crucial for understanding both Macbeth’s character and his relationship with his wife.

Verdi’s Macbeth is an out-and-out villain, a man of action rather than reflection or remorse.  Words, for the Italian, to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.  We do not see what he was like before he met the witches, and the only time Macbeth shows much human feeling is his aria “Pietà, rispetto, amore”, based on Macbeth’s penultimate soliloquy (V.ii, with the line “My way of life / Is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf”).

Verdi and his librettists also misunderstand Banquo’s role in the play.  He is a moral contrast to Macbeth.  Both men hear the witches’ prophecy, but only one man falls.  The witch’s prophecy tempts Banquo, but he overcomes that temptation, keeping his “bosom franchised and allegiance clear” (II.i).

These, though, are quibbles.  “This tragedy,” Verdi wrote, “is one of the greatest creations of man…  If we can’t make something great out of it let us at least try to do something out of the ordinary.”

Verdi may rest easy, sleeping well after life’s fitful fever.  Unlike the dead butcher and his fiend-like queen, he has little to trouble his conscience.