21 September 2014

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – MACBETH (H. Braun, C. Goltz, A. Dermota, W. Kreppel, E. Majkut; Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0380)

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - MACBETH (Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0380)

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Macbeth [Sung in German]—Hans Braun (Macbeth), Christel Goltz (Lady Macbeth), Anton Dermota (Macduff), Walter Kreppel (Banquo), Erich Majkut (Malcolm), Anny Felbermayer (eine Kammerfrau), Franz Fuchs (ein Arzt); Der Wiener Rundkunkchor; Das Große Wiener Rundfunkorchester; Argeo Quadri, conductor [Recorded for broadcast by Wiener Rundfunk, Vienna, Austria, in 1960; Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0380; 2 CD, 131:50; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​Once upon a time, before the advent of the European Union, when opera in an audience’s vernacular was not dismissed as a quaint affront to the integrity of composers’ creations, the principal broadcasters in German-speaking Europe frequently offered their listeners performances of operas from all niches of the repertory sung in their native tongue. To such broadcast performances is owed enormous gratitude for the preservation of a host of legendary interpretations that were not otherwise recorded: Gertrude Grob-Prandl’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung Brünnhildes; Martha Mödl’s Ulrica and Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas; Astrid Varnay’s Salome, Elektra, and Santuzza; Dragica Martinis’s Tosca and Leonora in La forza del destino; Lenora Lafayette’s Aida; Josef Metternich’s Rigoletto; Sena Jurinac’s Suor Angelica. Alongside a thrilling 1954 Westdeutsche Rundfunk broadcast of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth featuring Metternich, Varnay, and Ludwig Weber must now be placed another radio performance of the composer’s atmospheric adaptation of the ‘Scottish play’ recorded in 1960 by Viennese radio. Made available on compact disc for the first time with this release, this Macbeth is a real discovery, fortunately presented in a fresh remastering by Walhall Eternity Series with vibrant, largely undistorted sound. It is strangely discombobulating at first to hear lines as unapologetically Italianate as those in Macbeth sung in German, but after a few bars the ears adjust: with singing of the quality heard in this performance by a cast more likely to be encountered in music by Wagner or Richard Strauss, it is an adjustment that is readily made.

Born in Como, Argeo Quadri (1911 – 2004) was a stalwart presence in the performance of Italian opera in Vienna during the 1950s and ’60s, and his idiomatic, generally shapely conducting is documented on a number of broadcast and studio recordings. He was what now might be termed a ‘singers’ conductor,’ his pacing seemingly almost always attentive to singers’ needs. Verdi’s Macbeth was not typical fare in Vienna in 1960, but Maestro Quadri leads this performance with a sure hand, showing fine management of the opera’s dramatic thrust and natural affinity for the kernels of bel canto that enrich the score. In the conspiratorial exchanges between Macbeth and his treacherous Lady, Maestro Quadri takes a brisk approach, but lyrical passages like Macduff’s aria in Act Four are given ample breadth for emotive expansiveness. The finales of the first three acts, in which the young Verdi flexed his musical and dramatic muscles exhilaratingly, are resolved without forcing, and the innovative structure of Act Four is deftly handled. There is a squareness in Maestro Quadri’s conducting, but it is undeniably quenching to hear an Italian conductor with lifelong acquaintance with Verdi’s music focus on keeping things moving within the scope of the score rather than consciously pursuing an individual ‘interpretation.’

Vienna was in 1960 and remains today a rich mine from which to extract musical gems, and the playing of the Große Wiener Rundfunkorchester is appropriately sparkling. Despite a few missteps, the opera’s Prelude, one of Verdi’s finest efforts in this vein, is beautifully played, and the orchestral musicians consistently follow Maestro Quadri’s lead in delivering their parts with responsive but not inflexible attention to the quicksilver fluidity of Verdi’s music. Expectedly, the ballet music is not included in this performance, and there are cuts, mostly small, throughout the opera. The opening chorus of witches in Act One, ‘Was gibt's Neues?’ (‘Che faceste?’), is rousingly sung, and the choristers’ voicing of the witches’ return later in the act, ‘Sie hab'n sich fortgemacht!’ (‘S'allontanarono!’), has a wonderfully sinister energy. The choral Incantation at the beginning of Act Three, ‘Frisch auf zum Kessel her!’ (‘Tre volte miagola la gatta in fregola’), the stand-in for Shakespeare's ‘Double, double, toil and trouble,’ bristles with ethereal menace, but the greatest opportunity for the chorus comes at the start of Act Four. The lament of the suffering Scots, ‘Arme Heimat!’ (‘Patria oppressa!’), is the equal of the universally-celebrated ‘Va, pensiero sull'ali dorate’ in Nabucco, and the Vienna choristers sing as though they were themselves subject to Macbeth’s tyranny. Heard in 2014, this is an uncannily relevant instance of art mirroring life, but even in 1960 it was a moving, ardently-voiced expression of the yearning of a people to take back their own freedom.

German soprano Anny Felbermayer (born 1927) won the prestigious Cebotari Prize and gave many seasons of reliable service at the Wiener Staatsoper and elsewhere. In this performance, she sings the rôle of Lady Macbeth’s lady-in-waiting with fresh tone and dramatic involvement. Unfortunately, little information survives about the career of baritone Franz Fuchs: here portraying the Doctor who attends to Lady Macbeth in the Sleepwalking Scene, he delivers his lines with a firm voice of no great distinction. Viennese tenor Erich Majkut (1907 – 1976) enjoyed successful careers at both the Wiener Volksoper and the Wiener Staatsoper, as well as at the Salzburger Festspiele, and he fills Malcolm’s lines with vocal ease and some notion of how to shape a Verdian phrase.

German bass Walter Kreppel (1923 – 2003) sang Fasolt in Das Rheingold at Bayreuth in 1962 opposite Otto Wiener, Grace Hoffman, Jutta Meyfarth, Marga Höffgen, and Otakar Kraus, and his impersonation of Banquo in this performance seems a surprisingly apt preparation for his outing on the Green Hill. In his Act One duet with Macbeth, ‘Schon hat sich's zweimal’ (‘Due vaticini compiuti or sono’), Mr. Kreppel sings resonantly, the dark, grainy quality of his timbre lending credibility to his portrayal of Banquo as both warrior and thinker. In ‘Sie, wie vom Himmel schwer herab’ (‘Come dal ciel precipita’), Banquo’s aria in Act Two, Mr. Kreppel sings powerfully, rising with force to the top E. His account of Banquo’s ‘return’ in the Apparitions Scene in Act Three, ‘Ach, Macbeth! Macbeth!’ (‘O Macbetto! Macbetto!’), is chilling. Mr. Kreppel’s performance lacks the nobility that an ideal Banquo possesses, but his granitic vocalism and excellent diction create a character who is no man’s—or dastardly Lady’s—dupe.

Slovene tenor Anton Dermota (1910 – 1989) was one of the finest Mozart tenors of the Twentieth Century, for which accomplishment he was made a Kammersänger before he reached the age of forty. In celebration of his seventieth birthday, he sang Tamino in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Wiener Staatsoper with a voice little touched by time. Perhaps even more successful as a Lieder singer, he made wonderful recordings of Lieder by Richard Strauss with the composer at the piano. Throughout his operatic career, Mr. Dermota also sang a number of Italian rôles including Alfredo in Verdi’s La traviata and Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème, and this experience serves him well in this performance. Though he joins in ensembles in the opera’s first two acts, the pinnacle of Macduff's music is his aria in Act Four, ‘Ach, meine armen Kleinen’ (‘Ah, la paterna mano’)​​. Mr. Dermota sings every note of Macduff’s music with the well-supported, ingratiating tone and elegance for which he was renowned, but his performance of his aria is special—the finest singing heard in this recording. He ascends to the aria’s top B♭♭ with ardor, and he alone among the principals is attentive to the bel canto refinement of Verdi’s score.

Dortmund-born soprano Christel Goltz (1912 – 2008) was one of the Twentieth Century’s most acclaimed interpreters of the complex heroine of Richard Strauss’s Salome, a part that she recorded in studio three times and sang for her début at the Metropolitan Opera in 1954. In actuality, all of her six MET performances were as Salome, but she was also celebrated for her dynamic Färberin in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. Verdi rôles did not figure prominently in her career, but her traversal of Lady Macbeth’s music in this performance lacks none of the ferocity of her Salome and Färberin. She provides a reading of Macbeth's letter in Act One, ‘Sie begegneten mir am Tage des Sieges!’ (‘Nel dì della vittoria io le incontrai’), that is superior to many sopranos’ reading of the letter in Italian, but unsteadiness and stylistic discomfort rear their heads in the subsequent recitative, ‘Voller Ehrgeiz bist du’ (‘Ambizioso spirto tu sei’). Her ascent to the exposed top C falls short of the mark, but she reclaims much of her glory in the aria ‘Komm, dass ich reize dein träges Blut’ (‘Vieni! t'affretta!’), in which her top C is steadier and more accurate of pitch. Both here and in the​​ cabaletta, ‘Komm, Hölle, und sauge’ (‘Or tutti, sorgete’), her technique is sorely tested: she manages the cabaletta’s top B with panache, but her coloratura is inadequate. By the time that she reaches the Act One Finale, however, she is coping with the high tessitura with greater security, sustaining the extended top C in ensemble without incident and venturing a decent interpolated top D♭ in the coda. In her Act Two aria ​​‘Nun sinkt der Abend’ (‘La luce langue’), she ignites a dramatic fire that burns until the final note of her performance. The Brindisi, ‘Den vollen Becher lasst froh uns heben!’ (‘Si colmi il calice di vino’), is rippingly performed, the voice hurling out firm, ideally-placed tones up to top C.​​ The stumbling blocks of the plethora of top Bs in the Act Two Finale never upset her balance, and the vehemence of her singing in the scene with Macbeth in Act Three is arresting. Like Macduff, Lady Macbeth faces her greatest challenge in Act ​​Four, in which she takes her leave of the bloody drama with the unusual ‘Gran Scena del Sonnambulismo,’ ‘Dieser Flecken kommt immer wieder!’ (‘Una macchia è​​ qui tuttora’)​​. The eeriness of Ms. Goltz’s singing is spine-tingling, and there are fleeting passages in which her tone approaches genuine beauty. She gamely goes for the notorious top D♭—one of the infamous climactic high notes that Verdi actually wrote—and only just misses the center of the pitch. Vocally, Ms. Goltz is a decidedly inconsistent Lady Macbeth: dramatically, only Maria Callas and Renata Scotto are her true rivals.

Austrian baritone Hans Braun (1917 – 1992) sonorously intoned der Heerrufer des Königs in the unforgotten 1953 Bayreuth production of Lohengrin that featured Wolfgang Windgassen, Eleanor Steber, Astrid Varnay, Hermann Uhde, and Josef Greindl, conducted by Joseph Keilberth. In this recording of Macbeth, Mr. Braun is a burly, masculine presence. A measure of the vulnerability of the character is sacrificed, and though his singing is rough-hewn it is rarely unsatisfactory. In the Act One duet with Banquo, he phrases capably—occasionally more imaginatively than the German translation would seem to allow, in truth—and produces the climactic top Fs without strain. His ​​duet with his seditious consort, ‘Geh! Melde meiner Gattin’ (‘Sappia la sposa mia’), is rebelliously sung, and his lines in Act Two are lobbed like grenades. Mr. Braun reacts to the chorus and Banquo’s ghost with trembling defiance in the Act Three Apparitions Scene, his brawny voicing of ‘Ich bin am Ziele’ (‘Finchè​​ appelli, silenti m'attendete’) and​​ ‘Wehe! Du siehst wie Banquo aus!’ (‘Fuggi, regal fantasima’)​​ leading to compelling acting with the voice in the Act Three Finale, ‘Sie werden leben?’ (‘Ove son io?’). Mr. Braun permits an element of sadness to flow through his singing of ‘Was sonst wohl das Alter verkläret’ (‘Pietà​​, rispetto, amore’) in Act Four, and he fires off a striking high G as Macbeth goes into battle​. Like Ms. Goltz, Mr. Braun is not a natural Verdian, but his strapping voice—not on its best form in this performance, sometimes sounding fatigued and tentative—and resilient dramatic persona render him a Macbeth worthy of his vividly nasty Lady.

Virtually every opera lover enjoys contemplating how favorite singers might have sounded in rôles that they seldom or never sang. Fortunately, the archives of Europe’s broadcasters enable much of this conjecture to be compared with little-known performances. Verdi’s Macbeth is an opera that, despite its Scottish setting, is as Italianate as any score might claim to be, and in an era of downloadable libretti and supertitles what is the value in reviving a Macbeth sung in German more than fifty years ago for the benefit Viennese radio listeners? In the context of this recording, there are three phenomenal reasons: Hans Braun, Christel Goltz, and Anton Dermota.