Cher Public

Dwarf star

Verdi’s Macbeth poses a challenge to any company with the audacity to mount it. It’s layered and fascinating, but it needs a strong cast of singers and a director with a clear-cut purpose to do justice to Verdi, Shakespeare, and convey the deep-seated drama in the music and libretto. In another installment of the Teatro Regio di Parma’s “Tutto Verdi” series, the small, ambitious house gives a performance that almost perfectly achieves those goals.  

Composed for the first time in 1847 and then presented with revisions in 1865, Verdi’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s play of ambition and violence lends itself to a number of renditions. In this performance, Italian film director Liliana Cavani places emphasis on the evil in both the story and in humankind. The performance starts with air raid sirens and machine gun sound effects, setting the stage for war, which some might consider the ultimate evil. During the entire performance, both sides of the stage are flanked with theater-style seating from which much of the chorus watches the action. My interpretation of it was that those spectators demonstrate the human fascination with evil and how, sometimes, we are content to watch it passively.

The most interesting aspect of the production is its use of a dwarf with a rodent tail in various scenes preceding Duncan’s murder. The dwarf represents the evil in Lady Macbeth, the only character who interacts with him and, arguably, the only truly evil character in the opera. He’s also used to symbolize Lady Macbeth’s influence over her husband, as it is the dwarf who hands Macbeth the dagger. Another fascinating nuance that isn’t focused on by Andrea Bevilacqua’s scattered video directing was when Duncan’s body is discovered and his soldiers cross swords to swear to find the perpetrator, Macbeth and his wife lock hands on the other side of the stage, symbolizing the two sides of the conflict yet to come. The production left me pondering over what evil is and what it compels us to do, especially in the context of the play. If good theatre does anything, it should make us think. Cavani’s production is superbly conceived, and, for the most part, is served well by the singers in this video.

The weakest link in the chain, however, is Leo Nucci’s Macbeth. Almost 40 years into his career at the time this performance was taped, Nucci’s voice has worn very well. His intense but sensitive singing makes him an appealing musician and serve him well in this production. Only in the few high notes and minimal coloratura of the role can one hear signs of his age. However, in a production that demands the full participation of the singers, he fails. His face switches between “eyes open and mildly bored” and “eyes closed and mildly bored” expressions, which is so disappointing. You could probably group Macbeth, his wife, and the Marschallin into a similar category, being that all three are very complex roles. I would imagine that one of the joys of singing them would be discovering who they are and interpreting them for yourself. Nucci’s characterization is painfully unimaginative, which clashes with his wonderfully distinguished singing, cheapening his portrayal.

Fortunately, the physical intensity that Nucci lacks is more than made up for in the outstanding performance of Sylvie Valayre as Lady Macbeth. In a role she has performed many times before, she is definitely the highlight of the DVD and a true singing actress. The subject of what kind of voice Verdi preferred in a Lady Macbeth has been discussed to death, but Valayre’s voice, with plummy low notes and cutting high notes, fit perfectly with the character. Her violent and manipulative physicality is consistently convincing and you never doubt that she is the one who makes the decisions in the relationship. Also worth noting is her mastery of the text, which brings even more intensity to her portrayal. The role stretches her to her vocal limits, and once she gets past a vaguely unexciting “Vieni t’affretta”, she is an ideal Lady Macbeth, a fascinating singer, and I’d love to hear more of her.

The rest of the cast is evenly solid. Enrico Iori’s Banquo is well-sung with great low notes, but provides little insight into the character. Also, he was almost completely steamrolled by Nucci in their duet. Roberto Iuliano borders on pitchiness as Macduff, but his pleasant yet undistinctive voice propel him through a nicely rendered “Ah la paterna mano”. Tiziana Tramonti and Enrico Turco are a pair of nice voices as Lady Macbeth’s lady-in-waiting and doctor, with the former’s acting being especially convincing.

Alberto Verso’s costumes are uniformly detailed and impactful, with Lady Macbeth’s magenta bed jacket setting her apart from the rest in the chorus following Duncan’s murder. Dante Ferretti’s sets are basic and serviceable and the lighting by Sergio Rossi sets the mood very well.

The chorus of the Teatro Regio di Parma is top notch with special praise going to the women’s chorus as the witches. Dressing them as ordinary women washing linens further emphasizes how darkness can always be around us, even in places we least expect it. Amodeo Amodio’s creative but confusing choreography keeps the talented Compagnia Balletto di Roma very busy during the performance.

While Valayre’s Lady Macbeth is a good reason to buy this DVD, an equally good one would be for the direction of the late conductor, Bruno Bartoletti. Clearly a master, he brings out a huge variety of color from the very talented orchestra of the Teatro Regio di Parma, with special props to the woodwind section.

Bevilacqua’s direction is all over the place. Cameras onstage, such as in the “spectator seating” and mounted on the sides of the proscenium, provide interesting but awkward angles, and on more than one occasion you can see video monitors in the stage wings and spike tape all over the floor.

Available with subtitles in Italian, French, German, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish and English, the region free DVD is equipped with PCM Stereo and DTS 5.1 audio capability, as well as NTSC and 16.9 picture formats.

While the “Tutto Verdi” series is definitely a mixed bag, as a number of other Parterre reviewers can tell you, they really hit the nail on the head with this Macbeth. A definite must-have for anybody who loves an exhilarating Lady Macbeth and a thought-provoking production.

  • la vociaccia

    Some clicking has revealed that this performance took place in 2006; the last time I saw Valayre was in 2002, as Tosca at the Met with Richard Leech (longest Vittoria! ever- people were checking their watches). Apart from that, the most vivid thing I remember was that as Cavaradossi was being led away for his outburst, she turned downstage, walked towards the audience, and nailed the C in alt dead center and it sounded less like an angry howl and more like a very heartbroken cry. I thought that was pretty cool.

    Unfortunately, I think she may have winded it down. At the time of those Toscas she was a big hope, or rather, she had been a hopeful for a decade and now she was *it* for the ‘crazy bitch’ roles like Lady Macbeth, Tosca, and Abigaille. She did that very high profile CHENIER with Domingo the following season, and then after a run of Toscas in 2005 the Met has not seen her anymore. I saw a video of her Turandot from 2010 and it was, er, rough, to be charitable. She’s a lot like Guleghina, actually, if you think about it.

    Damn shame, because she did have a hell of a voice, and this Macbeth seems to catch her at her best, or close to it.

    • spiderman

      Valayre is/was one of this 100% performers. Not always pretty, but always exciting and committed. Saw her pretty often from Salome to Aida and Abigaille to Tosca, always fascinating to watch her perform. I heared she winded down her career because of family matters (and probably deteriorating vocal abilities?).

    • Camille

      There was also the Valayre substitution for Jane Eaglen in La Gioconda with Collegiate Chorale, I believe, at Carnegie Hall in the early aughties. She sang a fine Maddalena with Domingo, I thought, if not exactly spellbinding, it was fluent and she cut a graceful and lovely figure on stage.

      Then, there is THIS, my belated birthday present to my pet, Opera Teen, who has written a more than competent review. Honey, check out Signor Nucci in the 2000 Il Trovatore from La Scala sometime when you can. Expressionless or not, he is always worth hearing and one of the grand old men of la lirica italiana.

      Bumblebee Bossa Nova

  • MontyNostry

    Valayre sang ‘La luce langue’ at the memorial concert for Elizabeth Connell in London last autumn. There seemed to be lots of voice, but not a great deal of tone. She certainly gave a performance.

    • Regina delle fate

      She also sang Verdi’s Lady at Glynditz when Richard Jones’s production was new, seven or eight years ago (I’m guesstimating). The tone was also a bit threadbare then, but she too gave a performance. It’s a pity things didn’t happen for her when she was really terrific in the 1990s and replaced Varady as Abigaille at Covent Garden and Gorchakova in Don Carlo at the Proms. I read somewhere that she sang the Kaiserin a few years back. I can’t really imagine that…..

      • oedipe

        I can’t really imagine that…

        Imagine no more:

        Don’t know if this will work:

        The last time I heard Valayre live was in Il Tabarro at Bastille in 2010. It wasn’t pretty…

        • Feldmarschallin

          Well she looks good but that top is scrary and what language is she actually singing in? No thanks.

          • Feldmarschallin


          • antikitschychick

            Hey Feldmarschallin: Just wanted to let you know I have booked my flight to Berlin and will be arriving on June 27th :-D. If I happen to change the date I shall let you know thought I will def be there before Anja’s recital (which I’m suuuuuper excited about!!!! :-D). Let me know how I might go about getting your email so that we may k.i.t.

            (Apologies for being OT!).

        • Regina delle fate

          Yikes! I see what FM means….Well, she was splendid as Abigaille circa 1994….A long time ago, I know.

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        I thought Valayre was really excellent in the Glyndebourne Macbeth, and I quite enjoyed her in that Don Carlo under Haitink, although even to my 16-ish year old ears I found her a tad uneven -- Dmitri stole that show with his usual death scene breath control party trick, along with Borodina for all round awesomenes (I still recall excellent pianissimo top As in the cadenza of the veil song -- not something I should think she could pull off these days!).

        • armerjacquino

          Not to mention her ABEEgaille.

          • manou


  • armerjacquino

    Wow, I thought the whole concept of the ‘evil dwarf’ had gone out with 70s Hammer Horror films. A little discomforting.

    Well done on the review, though, OT. Between the semi-detached Nucci and the vocally-stretched Valayre (not to mention the evil dwarf) I don’t think I’ll be investing in this one.

    By the way, I noticed while Youtubing the other day that the gentlewoman in the 1987 Nucci/Verrett film is none other than Anna Caterina Antonacci.

  • La Valkyrietta

    I am tempted, God knows I need another Macbeth. Still, is there a more gorgeous pearl necklace to clutch than Leonie, Leonard, Carlo, Jerome and Erich? Anyway, thanks for the review.

  • manou

    Impressive review, OT -- I am very surprised at your comments about Nucci’s acting as he always seem to opt for overacting and is more of the slap-the-back-of-your-hand-on-the-forehead school of performance. Even in this clip of the Brindisi he does a fair amount of melodramatic eye-rolling.

  • stevey

    Wonderful review, Opera Teen, and nice to see Mme. Valayre get some praise and much-deserved attention on here.

    I’ve always been a fan, and think she’s quite a remarkable artist. Although her career has, admittedly, slowed down to the point of retirement right about now, 2014 would mark her 30th year singing and performing internationally. Considering that her repertoire has- since its beginning- encompassed all the usual Italian-rep voice-killers: Abigaille (where she also, more often than not, interpolated the ‘Callas high E-flat’ at the end of the act 3 duet with Nabucco, to stunning effect), Lady Macbeth, Turandot, Aida, Tosca, Giselda, Helene, Minnie, Gioconda; as well as venturing into Senta, Salome, and the Kaiserin; all of which were markedly successful (some more-so than others, of course…), I think should attest for something. 30 of Lady Macbeth’s and Abigailles??? Yowza!

    Thanks again! :-)

  • MontyNostry

    Here’s a surprise, Latonia has recorded **Lady Macbeth** in English for Chandos, with Keenlyside as her Thane. An extract is just on the radio of the big ensemble from the end of Act 1.

    • armerjacquino

      That is a MUST- very solid support, too, with Hughes-Jones, Sherratt, even the hugely promising Elizabeth Llewellyn as the gentlewoman. Thanks for spotting it, monty!

      • armerjacquino

        OK, call off the search. I have found the ULTIMATE parterre video.

        • Krunoslav

          Actually, this pales before the Katherine Jenkins /Marco Berti LIED VON DER ERDE, under Domingo’s baton.

          • manou

            They would have to add an M to the last word in the title.

            • MontyNostry

              Love it, manou.

          • armerjacquino

            Why stick to Mahler? The Erdmann/De Niese/ Potts/ Kocan C MINOR MASS is one of the finest things Gergiev has ever conducted.

            • Krunoslav

              Still, not too late for Dame Jo Barstow to record the Mahler Fourth…

            • MontyNostry

              Well, Dame Jo featured on the same programme that featured Latonia in Macbeth. Her recording of ‘Pace, Pace’ was broadcast. Fine artistry in many ways, but what a weird voice she had -- and the diction was very mangled -- ‘Ba-yeh, Ba-yeh…’. for instance.

          • RosinaLeckermaul

            That may be the worst idea for a recording that I ever heard. Right up there with Ethel’s disco album.

            • RosinaLeckermaul

              I was referring to the Jenkins/Berti DAS LIED VON DER ERDE, almost as bad an idea as a Wozzeck with Voigt and Hampson.

        • Batty Masetto

          Yikes! Talk about beauty and the beast.

          Haven’t time to listen all the way through, but it’s interesting to hear what serious trouble la Nadja was already having all the way back in 2002 as a “contralto.”

          Latonia on the other hand is just lovely, at least in what I had time for.