Barry Morell sings Macbeth (1964)
Maria Callas as Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s opera Macbeth.
In this remarkable and mercifully gossip-free interview with John Ardoin, Callas discusses her approach to music (1968). In the latter part of the conversation (starting at 36’), Callas gives a phrase-by-phrase analysis of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene as recorded at La Scala in 1952.
This extraordinary document sheds an extremely revealing light on Callas’s place in the history of singing and recorded music. One of the most interesting exchanges happens when Ardoin asks her about the modern habit of opening as many cuts as possible so as to give complete (or near-complete) performances of nineteenth-century masterworks. Callas responds by insisting that according to the fading tradition in which Serafin raised her, repetition is alien to the very spirit of bel canto; she adds that the pace of modern life has made it all but impossible for people to sit through very long performances, citing herself as an example—according to her, cuts are necessary in order to keep audiences entertained. As Callas recognizes, this defensive and thoroughly modernist attitude reflects her generation’s experience of opera as a dying art form whose cultural relevance could no longer be taken for granted. It is strikingly at odds with the more recent notion that a perception of historical distance can be essential to the audience’s enjoyment of music from the past—in other words, that making nineteenth-century music more “relevant” does not necessarily involve bringing it into line with the modern sound world. What Callas would have thought of Cecilia Bartoli’s recent period-instrument recording of Norma is a moot point. (Interestingly, Callas herself opens a traditional cut in her 1956 recording of Il Trovatore when she sings one verse of the frequently omitted cabaletta that follows the Miserere. However, this was probably done at Karajan’s insistence: in this 1968 interview, Callas seems unaware that cutting does not simply entail avoiding unembellished repeats but frequently results in the elimination of entire arias and scenes, many of which turn out to be dramatically meaningful and musically rewarding.)
Her introductory remarks on the Macbeth recording are equally interesting to a historically minded listener. When Ardoin mentions the sleepwalking scene, she apparently assumes that he is about to play the 1958 studio version, as she proceeds to tell an anecdote about it. In fact, what we hear is the live performance from La Scala, which was not available at the time except as a “pirate” or bootleg recording. Callas must have recognized it at once, yet she does not bat an eyelid and simply goes on to discuss the music, condoning what, in 1968, was an illegal practice. While this appears to contradict what she says earlier in the interview when she points out that her interpretations developed over time (making her later performances of operas such as Norma musically more interesting), it also says a lot about her relationship with the recording industry, as she implicitly agrees with Ardoin that her studio recordings are not necessarily among her greatest achievements. At the time, her contract with EMI would have prevented her from saying so openly; today, the same company issues DVDs of live performances by its major stars, Callas included.
Lady Macbeth takes a sip of water.
Shirley Verrett (Lady Macbeth) backstage at La Scala, Milano, 1975
Chilean soprano Nora López sings Macbeth
Like many sopranos of the 1960s and 1970s, López is very much under the influence of Callas. However, she puts many of her more famous contemporaries to shame with her rock-solid voice and technique.
Martha Mödl sings Macbeth in German (1951)
"La Luce Langue" is one of the highlights of the 1865 version.
Tito Gobbi sings Macbeth (1969)
I have always thought of this aria as Macbeth’s “Dio di Giuda” moment, the point when the tyrant understands the evil of his ways and sees that things could have turned out differently. The difference is of course that Nabucco repents and asks for God’s forgiveness, whereas Macbeth doesn’t.
Olivia Stapp sings Macbeth (1986)
This cabaletta was written in 1847 for the original version of the opera; it is reminiscent in style of Lady Macbeth’s Brindisi. In the 1865 version, it was cut and replaced by “La Luce Langue.” Any comparison between the two is necessarily unfair: this is a fine but workmanlike example of Verdi’s early manner, whereas “La Luce Langue” is a visionary piece of music theater.