This release marks an important milestone in the history of recorded opera. It is the conclusion of the involvement of the Peter Moores Foundation in complete opera and other vocal-based recordings.
Opera-followers of a certain age will doubtless remember the events which led eventually to the Opera in English series. In the summer of 1973 English National Opera (then still known as Sadler’s Wells Opera) was in the course of giving its first complete cycles of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ conducted by Reginald Goodall and a strong feeling arose that this event should be preserved. Broadcasting having been ruled out, a recording was made from three live performances of Siegfried and published by EMI “In association with the Peter Moores Foundation”. Moores was already known as a philanthropist active in supporting young operatic artists. He was convinced of the impact of opera sung in the vernacular. In the years following, the other three ‘Ring’ music-dramas were recorded and published, acclaimed for its singers, who in many cases went on to enjoy international careers, but above all for its modest conductor who stayed resolutely at home.
The Foundation also gave its backing to many of the projects of Opera Rara and a large number of bel canto operas, most of which had been forgotten, were recorded by the late Patric Schmid’s enterprising label.
Opera in English-translation had long been regarded as a poor relation, with rare exceptions such as the pre-war ‘complete’ recording of Gounod’s Faust with Heddle Nash (to set against that, the HMV/Columbia ‘Cav & Pag’ is pretty dire). Sadler’s Wells kept the flag flying with its policy of performing only in English but with few pretensions to international quality and in any case the LPs of productions from its repertory were exclusively highlights discs.
Nevertheless, despite the omens, in 1995 the Peter Moores Foundation and Chandos Records embarked on the Opera in English series, with operas from the international repertoire sung by lesser-known names but singers fully worthy of their casting. Some were up-and-coming artists such as Barry Banks (Don Ottavio, Nemorino and Nadir) and Garry Magee (Don Giovanni and Escamillo), others neglected by record companies (Jane Eaglen as Tosca and Aida), Dennis O’Neill in several roles, while stalwart singers such as Alan Opie and Andrew Shore were now able to record their signature roles. As well as new recordings Chandos resurrected performances from broadcasts such as Elisabeth Söderström’s Christine in Richard Strauss’s Intermezzo and the legendary Sadler’s Wells Meistersinger conducted by Goodall. One final aspect of the strategy was the publication of recital discs: that devoted to Della Jones is particularly valuable as a souvenir of that under-rated coloratura mezzo.
And now Chandos signs off with a hard-to-believe sixty-second release in the series and a real coup it is, having persuaded the immensely gifted Simon Keenlyside to commit his Macbeth to disc (the Covent Garden performance of 2011, in Italian, is available on DVD). I confess to having harboured doubts about Keenlyside’s expansion into the heavy Verdi repertoire. Heard live as Rodrigo in Don Carlo in 2010, he seemed to have reached the limits of his vocal capacity and I had misgivings about his assuming the role of Rigoletto for the first time in Vienna in 2013. Fortunately no strain is evident in his Macbeth as recorded here: it is not a vibrant Italianate sound and his studiously correct articulation of the text sometimes makes him sound like an English gentleman. To compensate, the absence of any vocal problems enables him to play to the strengths familiar from his art-song renditions. So we are reminded that he possesses a handsome legato line alongside the ability to deploy a wide range of vocal colours, to make the words tell powerfully and to convey the physical aspects of the role. The aria ‘Pieta, rispetto, amore’ is smoothly voiced but his best operatic moments come in the dynamic passages, above all in the equivalent to Shakespeare’s ‘dagger’ monologue. This is as good a piece of expressive arioso as Rigoletto’s ‘Parisiamo’, its contrasted sections cleanly subtly demarcated in Keenlyside’s interpretation. Macbeth is first confused, then increasingly panicky as the phantom weapon takes charge of him. In ‘See how your blade is bathed with bright streams of crimson’ his mezza voce suggests growing fascination. He tries to dismiss it with an Iago-like snarl (“Now I see it’s nothing”), but still he is unable to shake off the spell as he pictures the assassin going about his business, delivered with the vocal intensity of an incantation. A perfectly controlled soft E-flat above middle C opens the phrase “Motionless earth, do not echo to my footsteps” and this kaleidoscope of subtle vocal colours finally opens out into a straightforward decision to act in the powerful cadential phrase.
Latonia Moore is something of a discovery. Hers seems to be a big voice, with a juicy vibrato and strength in the chest register. Her rhythmic bite establishes the character of the party scene into which the ghost intrudes, though the occasional scoop is to be heard. She combines good technique with imagination; in the conventional arias she avoids routine while in the phenomenally wide range of ‘La luce langue’ she offers a passable audition for Eboli’s ‘O don fatale’. Her ‘Sleepwalking Scene’ is confident and impressive, but she needs to work harder on characterisation.
Of the other singers granted a solo aria, I have heard more resplendent voices in the role but at least Brindley Sherratt’s singing of Banquo is workmanlike and avoids disturbing the dramatic balance. Gwyn Hughes Jones is already a Metropolitan Opera regular. Not in absolutely best voice in Macduff’s aria, I feel, with some of the weight of tone I have heard elsewhere seemingly reduced, he nevertheless powerfully conveys the character’s guilt. All the minor roles are strongly cast. Jeremy Sams’s translation is in rhyming couplets. It is best described as dry and factual; rarely does it aspire to poetic heights. Macbeth’s explanation of his hallucination runs thus: “It was a figment of my own imagination, which has deceived me by presenting as truth feverish visions.” As Keenlyside delivers the text with razor-sharp precision it certainly cannot be ignored.
As for the orchestral playing, too much emphasis has surely been placed on criticism of the banda music for the entrance of Duncan and on the Act One witches’ music, which is superficial, lightweight and verging on the comical. In fact Verdi wanted the opera to have a distinctive sound, which should extend well beyond the music for the witches. In my judgement he succeeds, especially in the use of the sonority of the lower wind instruments and brass. Edward Gardner may allow the bass drum too much rope but he has an affinity with Verdi's music through judicious tempos and subtle colours and appreciates that handsome tones and sleek ensemble are not what is wanted.
Something rougher is the order of the day and the ENO Orchestra delivers handsomely all that is needed. The soundworld of the third Act is highly imaginative and the ‘Chorus of Scottish Exiles’ is an astounding creation. It is difficult to know which inspiration is the most admirable. The drum crescendo into the dotted blasts from the brass, the three layers of the second section (double bass pizzicato, the bagpipe-like sustained drone, the upward semitone figures as in Philip’s aria from Don Carlo) are startling enough; then with the entry of the chorus the sopranos daringly sing their minor-third lamenting phrase over the double basses’ bottom Es. The massive central crescendo is thrilling and the Opera in English Chorus here tops it with a perfectly executed subito piano before some of these inventive features are repeated in the final bars. To my mind this is the finest of the new pieces which Verdi wrote for the Paris revival of 1865. There is also much to admire in Gardner's handling of the 'Ballet Music' written by Verdi for the Paris production at which the revised Macbeth was first heard.
No direct comparisons are possible for this is the only recording in English of Verdi’s Macbeth, but playing it alongside three classic recordings of the 1970s and 1980s establishes that this version of the 1847 score with the 1865 additions and emendations can legitimately stand beside them. 1976 saw the publication of recordings by EMI and Deutsche Grammophon which were manifestly competing with each other, the former conducted by Riccardo Muti with Fiorenza Cossotto and Sherrill Milnes, while the latter was a La Scala production led by Claudio Abbado and featured Shirley Verrett and Piero Cappuccilli. Muti’s conducting was several notches up the dramatic scale from his rival and he was strongly supported by Milnes’s skills as a vocal actor. Cappuccilli’s interpretation is somewhat pale and wan by comparison. It is well known that Verdi wanted the voice of his Lady Macbeth to be “rough, hollow and stifled”, while the duet with her husband must “not be sung but acted and declaimed in a voice that is hollow and veiled”. None of the interpreters on record follows these instructions literally but the two singers cast by their respective companies as Lady had their own ways of fulfilling the composer’s wishes. Cossotto was a seasoned Azucena and Amneris, with the stony hardness of tone, especially in the chest register, once considered de rigueur in such roles but now hard to find. DG’s Verrett had until then been regarded as a dramatic mezzo but was later to undertake soprano roles. The conspicuous tension at the top of her voice could be uncomfortable to listen to. Verrett repeated her interpretation on Decca’s 1987 recording, the soundtrack of a film in which Leo Nucci is a model Macbeth, dark and firm of tone.
Of his twenty-two pre-Rigoletto operas, Verdi maintained a soft spot for his tenth, Macbeth, though that period was otherwise regarded as years of hard labour by the composer. To his father-in-law he offered the dedication of the work with the words “I send you Macbeth which I prize above all my other operas”. Realising that his musical language in 1847 was short of the sophistication needed to do justice to the theme, Verdi returned to the work eighteen years later, did some incidental touching-up and added some new numbers. Some of the inferior music, Lady’s Act One cabaletta, the assassins’ ‘stealth’ chorus, the Act Two finale, survived the revision but his commitment to the work and to Shakespeare more generally make Macbeth a still viable work and this recording offers many rewards, and includes bonus tracks from the earlier score. The engineers have provided an admirably clear recording, ideally balanced.