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.