Out, Out, Damned Spot: The Muti, Stein, Serjan Macbeth in Rome

ItalyItaly  :Verdi, Macbeth: Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro dell’Opera, Rome, 29.11.2011 (JB)


Stage Director: Peter Stein (in co-production with the Salzburg Festival)
Chorus Master: Roberto Gabbiani
Conductor: Ricccardo Muti
Sets: Ferdinand Wögerbauer
Costumes: Anna Maria Heinreich
Lighting: Joachim Barth
Choreography: Lia Tsolaki
Sword fights arranged by Renzo Musumeci Greco


Lady Macbeth: Tatiana Serjan
Macbeth: Dario Solari
Banco: Riccardo Zanellato
Macduff: Antonio Poli

Macbeth Opera Roma Stagione (c) Silvia Lelli


When Verdi saw Adelaide Ristori as Lady Macbeth, he instantly realised that Shakespeare was handing him a magnificent operatic opportunity. That great tragedienne had also bawled over George Eliot in her London performance of this role. (It was in Italian, though she later learned the role in English and toured America with it.)

Nearer to our own times, the Australian actress Judith Anderson, who made a career out of playing ominous women, apparently made a notable impression in this part. She played it opposite Olivier in the late fifties and was soon after awarded a Damehood. (Anyone who has seen Hitchcock’s Rebecca will never forget her chilling performance as Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper.) When Olivier played it with his then wife, Vivien Leigh, it was to illustrate, as some shrewd commentator put it (was is Stanley Cavell?) that the Macbeths were lovers before they were murderers.

Of course, these outstanding tragediennes had no place in the original production. All the women’s roles were taken by pre-pubescent boys. One can easily imagine the fun and mischief a little lad would have got up to – and there is evidence that they were encouraged to get up to mischief – as Juliet. But as Lady Macbeth? It makes more sense when you remember that Elizabethan audiences had “audience participation” – cheering, jeering and throwing things as well as chattering all through the show except for the best speeches of the leading actors. The little lads were there to jeer at, have stuff thrown at them and generally relieve the audience’s feelings in readiness for the more lyrical speaking.

Verdi didn’t speak English. But he kept a Complete Shakespeare by his bedside in Italian and even knew portions of this by heart. As with no other of his operas, he supervised every detail of the birth of Macbeth, constantly badgering Piave for rewrites until the librettist got them as close as possible to the original Shakespeare, often literal translations. He knew only too well that the lyric opera could move deeper and more easily into psychological depths, but at the same time it had to move forward with surety and swiftness to make its points. He therefore simplified the plot. The lovers before they were murderers goes out of the window. And Lady Macbeth is not just an accomplice. She is the protagonist. The opera is built round her three arias.

Tatiana Serjan is no stranger to this part. She sang it also this summer in Salzburg with Muti in this co-production with Rome. We first hear the Lady’s speaking voice, reading a letter from her husband. Spoken Italian ripples away in a rich, complex contralto and I have yet to hear a non-Italian who can hit this pitch. (Callas spoke Venetian thanks to her husband, but even with all her vocal pitches it was still audible that she was not a native speaker.) So no complaint that Ms. Serjan is Russian.

But she launched into Vieni l’affretta with a wonderfully menacing attack: a personification of evil – just what I suppose Verdi wanted. She didn’t sustain it though. By the time she got to the cabaletta – Or tutti, sorgete, ministri infernali – she could have been gathering buttercups on a nice summer morning. Similarly, she cut her voice down to half its size for the second aria (Act 2) – La luce langue – another dramatic opportunity tossed to the winds.

In the Brindisi, the Lady sounded as though she had run out of booze. (Shakespeare’s little lads would never have made that mistake. I know that you will say there is a difference between Shakespeare’s and Verdi’s Lady Macbeth. And you are right.) But the Brindisi is full of false jollity; false to be sure (some nice little hints of orchestration here), but jollity all the same. The Lady is a good actor in both Shakespeare’s and Verdi’s script. Of jollity there was not the faintest hint in Serjan’s delivery. So did this mean that these half-voice deliveries were saving the Lady up for something? Indeed it did.

I have been lucky with my Lady Macbeths. Ghena Dimitrova, Gwyneth Jones and Shirley Verrett top my list in that descending order of excellence. There are also the Callas recordings, which will never be surpassed. But not the 1952 La Scala recording, where the conductor, de Sabata, had no idea what he was doing and screwed the Lady up, but rather the studio recordings of the three arias, made much later. When it comes to the Sleepwalking Scene, Tatiana Serjan is worthy to stand alongside these all-time greats.

First, she is comfortable with the immense range from bottom C flat to top D flat (this last in the final phrase marked un fil di voce – the merest thread of voice) where technical prowess provides dramatic colour. Serjan’s bottom notes are rich in colour and dramatically threatening and like the other great Ladies she had understood that that fil di voce requires more voice, not less, if you are going to get the dramatic context right. In contrast with the rest of her performance, in this scene, every note comes out with loving care, as though her life depends on it. As far as I was concerned it did. But she passed the monstrously difficult test with flying colours.

In Serjan’s defence it has to be said that she was frequently not helped by Muti’s slow tempi. The Brindisi was slowed to the point of plodding. Of today’s conductors, Riccardo Muti is a leader in early Verdi. He firmly takes the stand that Verdi’s daring simplicity is something which should be broadcast from the house-tops, not covered up, messed about with in the name of interpretation until it starts to look clever. With Muti, less is more in early Verdi.

There is something fundamentally right about this approach. But when he came to write Macbeth, Verdi was striving for something more – a more meaningful expression in musical dramatic terms. Muti seems not to want to concede this. He would probably see it as condescending to the composer. But in denying Verdi this new striving, in the worthy if fanatical insistence of playing it all “straight” there are passages which come out as – dare I say it? – DULL.

The simple expedience of increasing the pace would sometimes solve these problems, but the conductor is uncompromising. The long ballet for the witches at the beginning of Act 3 (only inserted in the 1865 Paris version) droned on interminably. Restlessness throughout the audience. Peter Stein and his choreographer, Lia Tsolaki, had introduced some eye-catching movements during this music, but even they balked at the length and the first half of the score was played with the curtain down as though it were a Prelude to the Act. Yawn! The audience checking to see if their watches had stopped.

Peter Stein is always faithful to composers and librettists in a fairly conservative sense, though his love of open space can breath some modern air into his productions. It did so here. The minimalism worked fairly well. His movements are never less than dignified. And dignity plays a key part in this drama. Also aptly contrasted when the drama calls for the lack of the same. Stein is very good at tableaus. And these, too, appear and disappear with a real respect for the music. The apparition scenes were somewhat cliché-ridden but never offensive. It is true that Stein risks being in that terrible category of neither offending anyone nor pleasing anyone. But there were some moments during the evening when he pleased at least this opera-goer. A big asset on this stage was the colourful splash of Anna Maria Heinreich’s costumes of the nobility (see photo).

The voice of Dario Solari is too reedy to make a successful Macbeth though he did manage to convey well the disturbing uncertainties of the character. Antonio Poli got through Macduff’s aria breezily but convincingly. Prolonged applause at the end for Roberto Gabbiani, the Rome Opera’s Chorus Master. Quite right too. His witches made all the right noises.

Jack Buckley