I was just reading the Wikipedia article about Verdi’s Macbeth which quotes a critic from the 1960s describing “or tutti sorgete” as a “barnstorming martial cabaletta.” It’s one of the unofficial policies of this blog to work in the word “barnstorming” whenever possible, so there at least is one box I can tick off for this week.
Macbeth sometimes strikes me as slightly off, in terms of the relationship between the source material and the music. I have said this before, with reference to that very incident of barnstorming. Watching this version of the opera from the Met in 2008, I noticed it in a different way during Macbeth (Željko Lučić)’s last aria, “Pietà, rispetto, amore” in Act IV.
(Here are the words and translation, because I forgot to check a few boxes when I made the clip.)
Lučić sounds fantastic here, and I’ve listened to this bit several times just for the hell of it, but there’s something about this gentle, walz-like aria that doesn’t seem quite “I’ve spent the past few days drenching myself in innocent blood and I’m beginning to fear for both my crown and my immortal soul” enough, if you know what I mean. Especially when the orchestra comes in again around 2.09 or so. It feels like a “lost romantic love” aria more than the darker and more bitter kind of thing one might expect here. Macbeth has reason to believe that he’ll win, but part of him knows he won’t, and he feels regret for the honor, respect and love he will never have. When I first watched this, what I wondered was whether we’re supposed to sympathize with Macbeth or not. To me, the music says yes – but I feel like it should be a little more complicated than that. Then again, this is a reaction based on expectations, not on what’s actually there, which is probably not the best way to approach this kind of thing.
But let’s talk about the trees instead. One of the turning points in this opera is where the witches have told Macbeth that he’ll lose his crown only when Birnam wood marches against him, and of course at the time Macbeth thinks “psssh! like that’s going to happen!” but of course it does, when the forces arrayed against him in Act IV use trees from the wood as camouflage.
There are trees all over in this production. The interiors are divided up by huge pillars that look like tree trunks (with little slices of illumination through them), the backdrop at the very rear of the stage is consistently a view of bare trees, and the screen that is set up around Lady Macbeth’s bed in her first scene and which appears much later in her mad/sleepwalking scene looks like it’s got a pattern of bare branches on it.
I was wondering what the deal was with the trees – I should start some sort of Ominous Tree Watch, because the more opera I see, the more instances of ominous trees I can recall — and what I came up with first of all was this. One, any repeated pattern that doesn’t have some sort of ready explanation is going to seem eerie, and this is entirely in keeping with the sort of opera this is. Even if there was no business about the marching wood in the drama, I think it still might work. But (two) there is the thing about Birnam wood in the drama, and given this, the trees are kind of telling us what we already know, which is that Macbeth and his lady are headed for the worst type of disaster as soon as they make that decision to kill Duncan. In this instance, the production is perfectly consistent with the play, in that Macbeth is one of those early modern English murder plays in which one sin leads to more and more and more – once you commit one evil deed you’re basically off the rails and horrific things will inevitably ensue. But I think the trees are also about something slightly different.
(Next part here.)