First performed in 1847, Verdi’s Macbeth took 112 years to reach New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Part of the interval was unavoidable as the house didn’t open until 1883. When the work finally did reach the Met the company made up as much as possible for they delay with a superlative production. Verdi’s 10th opera was the first to achieve the deep psychological penetration that characterized his mature masterpieces. The opera focuses almost exclusively on literature’s most terrible twosome.
Leonard Warren in the last new role of his life met all the vocal and histrionic demands that Verdi typically placed on his leading baritones and which were multiplied above the usual in Macbeth. Macbeth goes from surprised to confused to murderous to hallucinatory to resigned all the while singing at the top of the baritone’s range. I was at the February 5, 1959 premiere at the Met. Warren was in glorious voice. Fortunately for posterity the greatest Verdi baritone of living memory recorded the complete opera along with rest of the cast from the first performance. This recording was made during the opera’s run in February. Warren’s sound is a little more like velvet than the hard dark sound that typifies many Verdi baritones. This may explain his extraordinary top. The tessitura Verdi imposes on his baritones was no problem for this unforgettable singer. What you can’t discern from his recordings is the immense size of his voice which can only be compared to an organ.
The other key role is that of Lady Macbeth, the epitome of matrimonial poison. The Macbeths are usually thought to be childless. It’s hard to imagine having Mrs Macbeth as your mother, but there’s that odd passage in Shakespeare’s play where Lady Macbeth berates her uncertain husband about his hesitation in offing King Duncan: “I have given suck, and know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me – I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums, and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have to this.”
God in heaven! What a woman. Where is this babe suckled on venom? Who is its father? Verdi’s Lady M is of a piece with the Bard’s. The great composer notoriously said he wanted an “ugly” sound for her. Hence the Met’s casting of Maria Callas for the production. Unfortunately, Callas was KO’ed by Rudolf Bing before she could bring her impersonation to New York. Despite the operatic feuding things worked pretty well. The great Leonie Rysanek made her Met debut in the role and registered a triumph in the process.
Thirty two years old at the time of her debut and the making of this recording her voice was at its peak. It hadn’t evolved to the state of inspired screaming that was her top range as she aged. Her voice is rich and powerful. It’s not ugly though it conveys the evil force that Verdi wanted. Her work in the Sleepwalking Scene captures the complete moral degeneration that has destroyed the wicked Lady. This scene is an artistic achievement that marks Verdi’s arrival at the summit of operatic distinction.
The rest of the cast is superb. Jerome Hines who had the physical stature of an NBA player had a similar vocal height. The young Carlo Bergonzi gives a brilliant reading of “Ah, la paterna mano”. Which as beautiful as it is seems to have come from another opera.
Macbeth abounds in wonderful ensemble pieces. The conclusion of Act 2 and the great chorus “Patria oppressa” are two examples. Less often cited is the concertato that concludes Act 1. This show Verdi’s astounding ability to stitch dramatic frisson to melodic invention unsurpassed in music. The combination of the two is unmatched. As an aside, Wilhelm Furtwängler thought the two greatest melodists of all time were JS Bach and Verdi. Here is the end of Act 1 (Macbeth Act I finale) starting with the entrance of Banquo and Macduff just prior to the discovery of Duncan’s murder. The horror of the murder, the unaccompanied voices, and then the grand ensemble denote the greatest of masters.
Verdi always needs a great conductor. In this recording it gets a good one – Erich Leinsdorf. Leinsdorf was always solid and never inspiring. He made a big career out of being OK. The sound on this recording is below par even by 1959 standards. The loud passages often break up. It’s not bad enough to distract you from an exceptional performance of a great masterpiece.