The Chain of Musical Communication

ItalyItaly  Verdi, Dvorak, Strauss.  Orchestra and Chorus of Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Chorus Master, Ciro Visco.  Conductor, Sir Antonio Pappano.  Anna Netrebko (soprano).  Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome 20.12.2014 (JB)

When Giuseppe Verdi saw Adelaida Ristori’s Lady Macbeth, he was bowled over by her acting.  So was George Eliot when she saw in London,  the same Lady in the same role, which was still in Italian.  Later, she would learn the role in English and tour America with it.  It seems that la Ristori had the same effect on her audiences as Bette Davis had on hers: everyone else on the stage or screen gets obliterated by their performance.  [Judith Anderson, who made a career out of playing ominous women, was rewarded with a Damehood for her Lady Macbeth.  Today’s audiences probably remember Dame Judith most for her film performance as Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca. ]

For the sake of completion of a fascinating history, I had better add that non of this was Shakespeare’s intention.  There were no women on the stage in England in the early seventeenth century.  Women’s parts were played by pre-pubescent boys in drag.  Imagine what fun these boys must have had as Juliet or as Goneril and Regan.  But as Lady Macbeth?  Almost unthinkable, until you remember that part of the fun of  Elizabethan theatre audiences  was throwing rotten eggs and worse at the villains.  The little devils learned early that acting means sacrificing your life for your art.

Life, art, sacrifice: I suggest that there is a power chain at work here.  It either gets enhanced, obliterated or both.  In this case it goes from Shakespeare to the boy players (enhanced and obliterated).  Much later it goes from Shakespeare to Ristori (enhanced –and how!)  Then from Ristori to Verdi (who both enhances and obliterates by transliterating his experience into pure music).  And from Verdi to his Lady Macbeths.

And where do we begin there?  With Callas?  (enhanced, though Vittorio da Sabata almost obliterated her in his inadequate conducting of her first La Scala performance; the much later studio recordings of the three arias are utterly enhancing).  Leyla Gencer?  (impressively obliterating, she had taken Verdi’s famous words too much to heart that he wanted a big ugly voice for this role.)

This brings us to Anna Netrebko, who gave the audience at Santa Cecilia’s Christmas concert, two of the Lady’s three arias.  She began with the Letter Aria –Vieni t’affretta  where she plastered the entire audience to their seats with a sheer volley of sound.  There are not too many singers these days that can do that.  Ms Netrebko knows nothing about saving up her magnificent voice.  She lets rip from start to finish.  And for all the drama in her giving, the sound is consistently beautiful too, low notes as well as high notes.  And always meticulously placed while giving the feeling of spontaneity.  Artistry never came finer than this.

You will recall that in the Sleepwalking Scene the Lady has become unbalanced by her own evil and is being consumed by it (This is the last we see of her.)  But this is a finer composition than any other Mad Scene, both more subtle and more nuanced.  Those details were exquisitely brought to life by this Lady.  All resoundingly enhancing.

Vocal expression was forthcoming in the opposite direction when Anna Netrebko brought out the most lush, velvety tones for Rusalka’s Song to the Moon.  Again it was a unique giving of herself to the music.  After the recent fiasco at the Rome Opera it was a joy to hear this masterpiece delivered as it should be.  We had already heard the beauty of her controlled pianissimo in the famous top D flat of the Sleepwalking Scene.  But Rusalka’s Hymn showed us other breathtaking, hushed vocal nuances.  The moon must have hidden behind a cloud on hearing such Worship.

A festive and appropriate encore of Richard Strauss’s Cecilia (with orchestral accompaniment) brought Anna Netrebko’s contribution to the evening to an end.

All of this was most sensitively accompanied by Antonio Pappano.  But like every other conductor and like every other stage director too, Maestro Pappano was at a loss as to know what to do with some of Verdi’s very weak music in Macbeth  for the Chorus and Orchestra.

I cannot go along with received opinion that this is among Verdi’s finest early operas.  The Lady Macbeth arias are indeed among his best of any period of his work.  But so much of the rest is pure padding.  And not very good padding either.  Though we were spared any staging of the witches with the usual dry ice as (for me) comic fog, these scenes are almost always a flop.  (I think it was Peter Hall who once had the witches in bright lights, wearing cocktail dresses, long cigarette holders and champagne glasses.  That almost worked.)  There is usually no escaping the dullness of these Verdi pages.  And that from a composer who is never dull.


Richard Strauss’s very considerable intellect never gets in the way of his wit: in fact, it is its driving force.  Rossini, of course, gets first place in musical wit: always seamless and spontaneous.  But what makes Strauss’s wit so exceptional is that he ignores the spontaneity and seamless rules.  He can do this, because he too (like Rossini) is a master of self-parody.  And everyone instantly knows we are talking about sending up two different musical languages.

The Strauss shameless send-ups of bourgeois musical idioms (think of the Rosenkavalier waltzes or Zerbinetta’s show-stopping aria in Ariadne) are clearly the composer having fun with himself.  And with at least some members of his audience. (Humour is always a tricky business: what works for one can be dull for another.)  But what is indisputable in this musical lexicon is Strauss’s impeccable ear for orchestration, In Till Eulenspiegels Merry Pranks  the instrumentation is so right in its very “wrongness”.  And everyone laughs because they understand that the prankster is not Till but Richard Strauss: Please sir, he told us to make that dirty stink.  The Santa Cecilia clarinets (Stefano Novelli and Simone Sirugo) and their horns (Alessio Alegrini and Marco Bellucci) neatly and eloquently let us in on the joke.

Antonio Pappano’s pacing of this rondo doesn’t allow for any underlining of the jokes.  They are divulged with a po-faced matter-of-factness.  Don’t look now or try to listen backwards: that was a joke you just missed.   They pop out of the orchestral main body with the effervescence of vintage champagne.  (And if you make the mistake of being taken in with the seeming-spontaneity, and pause to look at the detail, you will see there is a master-craftsman at work across the whole orchestral spectrum.)  In a very real sense the laugh is on us, the audience.  But isn’t an awareness of our own ridiculousness the basis of all real humour?  The Strauss craftsmanship is precisely at our service here.

Jack Buckley

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