Opera In English - Verdi: Macbeth / Simonetti, Keenlyside, Sherratt, Moore

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VERDI Macbeth Edward Gardner, cond; Simon Keenlyside ( Macbeth ); Latonia Moore ( Lady Macbeth ); Gwyn Hughes Jones ( Macduff ); Ben Johnson ( Malcolm ); Brindley Sharratt ( Banquo ); Op in English Ch; English Natl Op O CHANDOS 3180 (2 CDs: 159: 36)

My feelings about this release are many and complicated. It is the last in the long-running Opera in English series made and compiled by Chandos, as funding from the philanthropic Peter Moore’s Foundation ends this year. If nothing else this is a fine studio recording of Verdi’s Macbeth , well sung and conducted, and special praise goes to Chandos for shoehorning the whole work on to two discs with the ballet and both the 1847 and 1865 endings. If you want Verdi’s youthful masterpiece sung in English, there is no competition (and I doubt there will ever be). But are there many of us who still want Verdi in English? Did we ever?

I am surprised the series lasted as long as it did, to be honest. Studio sets of Italian opera in German ended in the late 1980s (with EMI-Electrola’s La bohème , I believe) and if people sneered that Verdi in German sounded like a grotesque Bavarian drinking song, then singing it in English only makes Joe Green sound like Gilbert and Sullivan. Whereas a theater can argue a case for producing opera in the vernacular (a sense of immediacy, or “relevance” and “inclusivity” if you want to sound like every marketing department), listening to opera in translation on CD only emphasizes two fallacies: The original sound the composer had in mind has gone and diction remains too murky to forgo the printed libretto. Diction is a contentious issue especially with regard to the English National Opera, whose remit was rendered pointless ever since it put in surtitles. In the singers’ defense, the crisp enunciation of the Golden Age was due to the drier acoustic of their former home at Sadler’s Wells. The airy Coliseum is a tough venue to project text, yet in the case of John Tomlinson, Lisa Milne, or even Lesley Garrett, not impossible. Some blame also has to go to the post-Julie Andrews fashion for favoring a smooth, creamy vocal line ahead of clear text. It is a problem that neither the Coliseum nor Chandos ever resolved.

My personal view is that the ties between Chandos and the ENO were not tight enough. The gems of this catalog (The Goodall Ring , Janet Baker’s Massenet and Handel) tend to be live from the theater or, like Richard Hickox’s fabulous Britten recordings, in the original language. What amazes me is how little of the English National Opera there is on DVD, especially when its reputation hangs more on provocative visuals rather than ultimate casts. A phenomenal show like Richard Jones’s technicolor Lulu would be highly desirable on DVD, yet again and again the Peter Moores Foundation thought it better to spend money and record the opera in the studio.

Although the studio sets wisely paired familiar stars with the younger ensemble names, there is a palpable feeling of redundancy when there is no production to link it to. The English National Opera still struggles (although it is currently having a terrific run of hits, be it accessible new opera from Julian Anderson or celebrity-led stagings such as Terry Gilliam’s Benvenuto Cellini ) and with the demise of this series, London’s second opera company has lost yet another media outlet. With its reputation as the youthful, funky alternative to Covent Garden, the English National Opera “Power House” years were at a time when a terrestrial TV station was prepared to broadcast these “sexy,” Postmodern stagings at prime time, so the idea of a corresponding opera set still made sense. I can’t help feeling sad, but times have changed, and Chandos would be better off producing DVDs from the Coliseum.

Anyway, enough of my polemic. How good is this new Macbeth ? With no corresponding audience who want a memory of what they saw, this new studio recording hangs on the star casting of Simon Keenlyside, a welcome but again slightly redundant choice given that you can hear and see his troubled psychopath (in the original Italian) on a fine DVD from Covent Garden conducted by Antonio Pappano. Good as he is here, I do think Keenlyside is best when seen and heard (I don’t say that about many singers) as he is one of opera’s few truly visceral actors. In the cold glare of the studio he gives us a carefully modulated reading, text aware and utterly precise, but just a little bland and unvaried. I do like his creepy chuckle when plotting Banquo’s demise, and such diligence and caution fits the weak and corruptible Thane. Although a bit small for Verdi, his sense of line is good, and he knows his vocal limits, although the tone is getting gritty when pushed.

Nevertheless, he is a good foil to Latonia Moore’s gleaming Lady Macbeth, a fine portrayal which is really worth getting excited about. There’s the she-devil steel to her voice, but she sings her runs cleanly and is equally fearless in the more soaring passages. Her sleepwalking scene, here taken much faster than usual, is especially chilling and fanatical. Only her diction under pressure is wanting, otherwise she holds her own against such luminaries as Fiorenza Cossotto and Shirley Verrett. The rest of the cast are generally fine. In the comfort of the studio Brindley Sharratt’s lightish bass makes enough impression as Banquo, with a very fine account of his aria and Gwyn Hughes Jones is an adequate Macduff. Comprimario roles are well taken, creating a tight, well dramatized ensemble. Having both endings really is a selling point, but I’m personally torn between which I prefer. Verdi’s reworked version has a much better battle but ends with that ludicrous, jaunty, “everything’s fine” chorus, and we lose Macbeth’s chilling final aria, here sung as “I have sinned.” Listeners will find themselves flitting between the two.

Edward Gardner gets superb work from his ENO forces. In the barn-like Coliseum, this young charismatic figurehead has failed to live up to his initial promise, as his readings have often been sluggish, if polished, so this urgent, propulsive account of Macbeth is a real surprise. His tempos go to both extremes, galloping through the jaunty choruses, or giving a deliciously creepy, lugubrious account of the overture, but he understands the overreaching arc of the opera. Ensembles are built up to thrillingly and there is no sense of a static studio run-through. There is good work too from the pickup chorus (The English National Opera chorus must have been busy elsewhere), full of young London-based names, great and good.

Recorded at the Blackheath Halls, the sound is full but cavernous. It lends the production a suitably empty feel for the bleak setting, but some orchestral detail is lost to the closely miked singers. Documentation is up to the usual, thorough standard of this series, with a typically fine essay from Mike Ashman. So, this is worth buying, if only to mark the end of an era. It is a very good performance with a standout Lady Macbeth, but ever so slightly redundant in an age of surtitles, live recording, and at a time when London’s opera in the vernacular struggles to show its face in this harsh multimedia world. It is hard not to feel sad when every new opera set on CD feels like a penultimate nail in the coffin, but this set announces two demises, and I’m not really talking about Verdi’s multiple endings.

FANFARE: Barnaby Rayfield

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: CHAN 3180(2)

  • UPC: 095115318027

  • Label: Chandos

  • Composer: Giuseppe Verdi

  • Conductor: Edward Gardner

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: English National Opera Orchestra

  • Performer: Ben Johnson, Brindley Sherratt, Gavin Horsley, Gwynn Hughes Jones, Latonia Moore, Riccardo Simonetti, Simon Keenlyside