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Chris Mullins
Opera Today, August 2009

For his Macbeth, director and designer Pier Luigi Pizzi makes the most of this configuration. Two long, intersecting black ramps bisect the stage, each covered in red cloth. A large pedestal made of stairs sits off to one side; the thrones of Macbeth and his lady, in garish red, will sit atop that pedestal. All the costumes are in black, gunmetal, or red, usually in shiny fabrics. Verdi’s music for Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy explores the shifting psychological landscape of its twisted anti-heroes, and Pizzi’s dramatic color scheme and athletic use of movement makes this a most exciting staging.

None of the singers’ names may be familiar to U.S. audiences, and none may ever be so. They have all been cast well, however, and make potent contributions to Pizzi’s success. Giuseppe Altomare sings Macbeth with a rough-edged baritone, but that element of forced bluster plays well for the character. Verdi and librettist Piave did not include the lines about Macbeth seeming too small a man for his royal robes, but Pizzi does have Altomare in a long jacket with train that seems to swallow him up in the last act. The biographical note in the booklet relates that soprano Olha Zhuravel has been singing a lot of Turandots, and has taken on Nabucco’s Abigaille. The voice would be what that suggests—sizable, but not beautiful, with more thrust than elegance. Her ghoulish makeup is a rare misstep for Pizzi’s production; it makes a performance that threatens to be unvaried vocally even less subtle. Zhuravel is strong, it should be said, all the way to her climatic scene, which lacks that touch of pathos the role’s greatest interpreters managed to produce. Rubens Pelizarri in the tenor role of Macduff blasts through his aria without tenderness or sensitivity.

Gheorghe Iancu’s choreography dominates the opening and, quite naturally, the extended ballet. Too much stomping and stamping mars the music in act one. The ballet comes off quite well, though. In its most striking image, the female lead dancer is lifted up and then one by one kicks down a row of soldier/dancers lined up on the ramp.

The Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana responds well to the energetic leadership of Daniele Callegari, although the horns don’t always agree on pitch. Fans of this opera definitely should give this Naxos set a chance…the visual power of Pizzi’s work here makes for a very strong Macbeth.

Robert J Farr
MusicWeb International, June 2009

This performance of Macbeth is the second DVD recording issued by Naxos from the 2007 Sferisterio Opera Festival. It follows Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda (2.110268). Both were recorded by the Italian company Dynamic and are issued by Naxos under licence…There are major differences in the presentation between the Dynamic and Naxos issues. The former use two DVDs and claims “filmed in high definition”, whilst Naxos issues the recordings on one dual layer disc. I have to report that I find no difference in the quality of the sound or picture between the two. What is different is the presentation and detail in the accompanying booklet. The Dynamic issue has a background essay and a plot synopsis in Italian, English, German and French. The Naxos has an essay in German and English only. Naxos issues however, score more highly in having significantly more Chapter divisions, a detailed Chapter-related synopsis and very welcome artist profiles.

The Sferisterio Opera Festival is held in the open air in the curved Arena in Macerata, a city in the Marche area of Italy that has hosted a Festival for over thirty years. It is in one of the most unusual arena venues. Originally built in the 1820s it was designed for pallone, a ball game called involving ricochets off the long wall. The massive curved back wall is largely shielded by the nature of the set. The width of stage frequently challenges producers. Not so the vastly experienced Pier Luigi Pizzi who is the latest to attempt to put Sferisterio more firmly centre-stage among Italy’s Opera Festivals.

Pizzi uses the width of the stage with red centred raked walkways sloping from a raised central dais on which is situated a red throne, and later, two. The costumes are in period with the addition of plenty of crimson red and black, including red rubber gloves and shoulder pads for the second appearance of the witches (ch.21). Macbeth is a dark tragedy with plenty of blood and Pizzi highlights the contrasts of the black of death and the red of blood whenever possible to good dramatic effect. Apart from the change of thrones, and some props such as tables front-stage in the banqueting scene (ch.18), the set is unchanged. Space and effect is wrought by use of plenty of ‘smoke’ from the ice machine around and along the raked walkways and on the front-stage. The apparitions are represented by the actors and singers walking across the top tier, the last holding a mirror in allusion to his lineage of future kings. If anything they were too real and lacked the surreal effect I recall from the Glyndebourne Macbeth of 1972.

For Pier Luigi Pizzi it perhaps seemed as though lightning did strike twice when, as with the production of Maria Stuarda referred to above, the singer scheduled for the eponymous role withdrew. As I report in my review of the Donizetti opera, the replacement meant that the scheduled singer was hardly missed. But Verdi-sized voices are not two a penny on the international stage these days. Yet again Pizzi was fortunate in his choice of Giuseppe Altomare whose singing and acting do not let the side down. Although lacking the vocal weight and intensity of the ideal Verdi baritone, he has something of a hole in the middle of the voice when he puts pressure on his tone. Perhaps aware of this limitation, he husbands his resources and compensates with careful phrasing, adequate variety of colouration and characterisation as well as committed acting. By the last act some tiredness has taken its toll and his tone is a little dry as he finally walks wearily and open-armed to be speared by Macduff (ch.33).

As is well known, Verdi did not want a beautiful singing voice per se for his conception of Lady Macbeth, specifying that the “voice should be hard, stifled and dark”. Like her Macbeth, the Ukrainian soprano Olha Zhuravel lacks the ideal weight of voice for the part. Whereas he compensates with the vocal skills outlined, she brings the role to life via her acting. I have never seen such a feline and fully involved interpretation of the Lady since Josephine Barstow at Glyndebourne in 1972, a performance caught on Arthaus Musik 101 095 in a regrettably cut edition. Like Barstow, Olha Zhuravel dominates the scenes by dint of her physicality and force of acted personality. By the sleepwalking scene (ch.30), with hair grey and looking haggard, her vibrato and lack of tonal variety is more obvious. Zhuravel is at her best when reading her husband’s letter recounting his meeting with the witches and their portents (ch.7) and in the drama of the banqueting scene (ch.18). In its totality hers is a formidably acted and involving portrayal that contributes significantly in bringing Pizzi’s conception alive.

Pavel Kudinov contributes strong and sonorous tone as Banquo (ch.17). Worthy singing from the two tenors as Macduff and Malcolm complements the strong vibrant chorus in the last act, and elsewhere, whilst the ballet is interpreted with appropriate expression. On the rostrum Danielle Callegari gives Verdi’s creation its full due, matching the differing styles of the later and earlier music to give a cohesive whole. The video director works an involving balance between close-up and wider distant shots that encompass the stage width. The sound is clear, vivid and well-balanced, catching the vibrancy of the all-important chorus contribution particularly well. The Italian-only libretto can be accessed at the Naxos website.

Robert Cummings
Classical Net, June 2009

I couldn’t initially put my finger on why I liked this outdoor production of Verdi’s Macbeth so much. From the very outset, I sat riveted throughout the performance, despite the fact I noticed many flaws. The production, headed by Pier Luigi Pizzi, is one of those modern ones, with one dominant set piece on the stage and little else. In this case it is a long red-carpeted runway, ascending from left to right. There are also some steps on the far right leading to a throne. Throughout the opera there is liberal use of rising mist, which certainly adds to the spooky atmosphere, despite what some might perceive as a B-movie effect.

The costuming is colorful, if sometimes boldly garish, with black attire often contrasted by red vinyl, and headwear that wouldn’t be out of place in an old Flash Gordon serial. The makeup may be a bit over the top, too: Lady Macbeth has a “goth” look, and might at times almost pass as a punk rocker.

The singing? There isn’t a major name in the cast, but all pass muster. Giuseppe Altomare is a good Macbeth, both vocally and dramatically. The Lady Macbeth of Ohla Zhuravel is the one controversial performer here: her singing has a fairly constant vibrato, or wobble, although her voice is decent enough. Her acting, however, is spectacular. You really sense she is Lady Macbeth: she is determined, intense and fanatical—and she casts some looks that COULD kill! The rest of the cast is fine, especially Rubens Pelizzari as Macduff: try his Act IV O figli, o figli miei…for one of this production’s finer moments. Another highlight is the ballet segment at the beginning of Act III, which features beautiful choreography (by Gheorghe Iancu) and splendid dancing.

The orchestra? They play with spirit and accuracy for the insightful Daniele Callegari, whose tempos and phrasing are most thoughtfully conceived. So, you ask, why did I like this production so much? Quite simply, it succeeds fabulously in uniting Verdi’s brilliant (and still underrated) score with Shakespeare’s dark story, from well-conceived overhead camera shots of the stage action, to the brilliant and atmospherically chilling singing of the chorus. The sound reproduction is excellent, too. While I could cite bigger-name casts who have sung this opera better (Rysanek, Warren, Bergonzi, et. al.), I’m not sure I’d want to trade any of the singers in this cast for anyone else, past or present. They all seem a near-perfect fit in this deliciously twisted rendition of Macbeth. Strongly recommended.

Charles H Parsons
American Record Guide, May 2009

A mini-tour of Macerata begins the video. If the music accompanying it sounds unfamiliar, that because it is. It’s the ballet music for his 1865 Paris revision of the opera. And, would you believe it? The complete ballet is included in the performance. It’s a 2007 production designed and directed by Pier Luigi Pizzi.

The stage is simply an extremely long two-tiered platform covered in black with white walkways (the better to reflect the red lights). What appears to be about 50 witches (chorus and ballet clad in wind-flowing black gowns, hoods, and long blood-red gloves) cavort madly about the stage. It’s quite a sight. Macbeth, Banco, and the Scots army enter all clad in black. From here on everything that is not black is in lurid red. The longer the opera goes the redder the costumes get as blood piles on blood. At least royalty gets gold crowns. It’s stark, but effective. Staging is geometric pattern simple. The opposing armies whack and thwack in choreographic splendor. But do we really need to see a dead, bloody, naked King Duncan hauled in on a white sheet? And does it take the entire men’s chorus to dispatch a single bass (Banco)?

Lady Macbeth is a hoot! Black lips, lots of black eye-shadow, and acting like a re-born Theda Bara…Otherwise, the opera is a right fine performance. Altomare has the real Verdi baritone goods, solid, warm, with a bit of expressive grit, and a good insight into the character. His ‘Pieta, rispetto, amore’ is a high point of his tragic portrayal. Kudinov puts out some majestic dark singing for a lovely ‘Come dal ciel precipita’. Pelizzari is plaintively expressive singing MacDuff’s ‘Ah, la paterno mano’ with good style and taste. Voleri’s Malcolm is fiercely intent in his brief pronouncements, coming through with clarity of diction. The large chorus and orchestra merit a high approval rating for full-bodiedness and ferocity with plenty of rhythmic vitality.

Samuel Perwin
Opera News, April 2009

The startling production is, at least, consistent in its commitment to broad strokes—perhaps a wise choice when dealing with an outdoor festival. The imposing, all-purpose set, consisting of various ramps and stairs, allows for multiple settings and enough space for the alarmingly large chorus of witches, soldiers and royal guests, not to mention an entire corps de ballet. But in keeping everything so large and single-minded, Pizzi sacrifices some of the more subtle joys that make Macbeth such a gem of early Verdi.

His choice, for example, to supplement the chorus of witches with a troupe of dancers ultimately diminishes their impact. If Gheorghe Iancu’s choreography was meant somehow to demonstrate or clarify the witches’ prophecies, the result is exactly the opposite: their predictions and warnings, so crucial to the plot, are confounded by the interpretations of dancers behind them. But Iancu’s efforts are not all for naught. Act III’s ballet depicting the rise of Hecate (danced beautifully by Anbeta Toromani) is lively and fun…In the title role, Giuseppe Altomare brings an intelligence to his singing that is a welcome contrast to his one-note wife. His soliloquies, particularly Act IV’s “Pietà, rispetto, amore,” are affecting and poignant, even if his baritone is a little rough around the edges. He loses steam in some of the more powerful outbursts, such as Act II’s banquet scene. Pavel Kudinov brings his lovely, warm baritone to Banco—I was sorry to see him killed (by what seemed like a hundred assassins!) after a heartfelt rendition of “Come dal ciel precipita.” Rubens Pelizzari sings a vigorous Macduff, attacking what little music he has with his rousing tenor. His “Ah, la paterna mano” was a crowd favorite, eliciting a chorus of bravos from the audience.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2009

Filmed at the outdoor arena of the Sferisterio Opera Festival in Macerata, the Director, Pier Luigi Pizzi, has conceived Verdi’s Shakespearean opera, Macbeth, on a gigantic stage. Its concept has been in a traditional format returning to the time of the real Macbeth, the use of just red and black costumes, with a distinct leather fetish, conveying the blood caused to flow by the dark and murderous couple. Acting is rather exaggerated and stylized, as is often the case when singers transmit to audiences in large outside locations, but Pizzi’s direction has the virtue of never deviating from the basic story. The performance is in Verdi’s familiar 1865 version and includes the rather stupid ballet scene that had to be include to please Parisian audiences, and which brings the story to a grinding halt. Before his voice has warmed, Giuseppe Altomare has problems focusing his on the note he is looking for, but eventually grows into a suitably agonised Macbeth driven to madness in the banquet scene. Olha Zhuravel’s Lady Macbeth is one of those steely massive voices we have come to expect from Eastern Europe, and is never disappointing as she launches into her big arias. Verdi’s concept gives the other characters little of importance, but I much enjoyed Pavel Kudinov as Banco and Rubens Pelizzari as Macduff. So it is left to the enormous chorus to provide the other major delight of the performance—so large it takes practically five minutes to get everyone back on stage again for the final applause. Principally formed from students of Conservatoires from this Italian region, it sings with tremendous vigour. The local Marchigiana Filarmonica Orchestra lack nothing in excitement for the big moments and accompany, under the direction of Daniele Callegari, with appropriate sensitivity. Translated subtitles are available, but I do wish Naxos’s booklets were more fulsome, this one, for instance, failing to give any background of the producer.

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