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Not There to Shield You


Giuseppe Verdi

Canadian Opera Company

April 28–May 20, 2023


“‘What’s Verdi got to do with it?’ Peppone interrupted. ‘Verdi’s no artist; he’s just a man with a heart as big as this—’

“And he threw out his arms so eloquently that they cut a wide swathe all around him. Don Camillo wasn’t agile enough to get out of the way, and received a blow in the stomach. But out of respect for Verdi he said nothing.”

So concludes Giovanni Guareschi’s short story “A Country Priest’s Diary,” from Don Camillo’s Dilemma, wherein Don Camillo and Peppone join forces to regain for their village the honor due to the birthplace of Giosue Scozza, (fictional) composer. The town of Torricella, their hereditary rival, has always claimed Scozza for its own. But one day Don Camillo unearths a seventeenth-century diary with incontrovertible evidence that Scozza is not, as per the locally loathed periphrasis, “the swan of Torricella,” but was born in their very own village, departing with his family to Torricella at the advanced age of three.

Torricella folds like a cheap suit before the proof. A successful negotiation to repatriate Scozza’s expensive marble monument ensues, and Peppone brings an orchestra from the city to celebrate with a twelve-piece program by the long-lost son of the parish. But the musicians have barely completed the third selection when the crowd begins to shout, “Verdi! Verdi!” And Verdi takes over the program, to universal rejoicing.

As the evening winds down, Don Camillo and others attempt to resolve the tension between village loyalty to Scozza and village preference for Verdi, when Peppone cuts in with, “What’s Verdi got to do with it?” He means that the two can’t be compared. Verdi is not to be ranked with artists who require background and analysis to be understood, for Verdi speaks in the language of the heart.

Doubtless many qualified professionals would beg to differ, or at least offer nuance! But after attending a recent performance of Verdi’s Macbeth by the Canadian Opera Company, this (unqualified) writer believes Peppone is onto something.

Macbeth is one of the bleakest tales in English literature, and the ubiquitous Sir David McVicar, whose opera productions have been darkening stages from the Met to the Royal Opera for decades, played up the gothic effects, using black and gray sets, gruesome props, and three off-kilter witch children to build an alienating and disturbing atmosphere. The opera was set in the Victorian period, and the costumes offered little relief to the eye: Lady Macbeth wore severely cut dresses; Macbeth, Banquo ,and Malcolm were in nearly identical dark uniforms; and the large chorus of witches were in gray. (Instead of Shakespeare’s three individual witches, Verdi divides a large chorus of women into three musical parts; McVicar’s three silent witch children were a nod to the Shakespearean characters.)

Much of the action took place in a ruined chapel that switched directions during scene changes, sometimes with the pews facing the audience, sometimes facing away from the audience towards a stark black altar with what appeared to be a Bible placed open in the middle (which Banquo’s murderers would flip through later on, searching for sections they didn’t like and tearing them out). “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”—but there wasn’t much fair about McVicar’s vision.

And yet in a tour de force, the kind of thing that only happens once in a blue moon, the musicians, singers and orchestra, broke free from McVicar’s vision and simply gave the audience Verdi. Where McVicar seemed determined to disturb and darken, Verdi’s music soared with beauty and pathos. Lady Macbeth (Alexandrina Pendatchanska) refused to be the de-humanized psychopath the sets seemed designed for; instead, she was charming, determined, manipulative, and wicked, at one moment ruthless, at another wracked by suppressed guilt, especially in her sleepwalking scene with its famous aria Una macchia è qui tuttora, “Out, out, damned spot. . . .”

Macbeth (Quinn Kelsey) sang magnificently, his voice changing across his character arc—warm but weak at first, anxious to earn his wife’s admiration; then groggy, his mind clouded by unresisted temptation, in Mi si affaccia un pugnal! “Is this a dagger that I see before me?” with a trailing, effective emphasis on the line “You lead me down the unclear path of my intentions . . .” as he stumbles blindly after a dagger carried by one of the witch children. From the discovery of the murder to the end his voice gradually hardens in keeping with his increasing brutality.

Although the production intended to present a cold and alien universe, both Macbeth and his wife are entirely human, compelling empathy even as their misdeeds degrade their personalities. They were supported by Speranza Scappucci, an Italian conductor with an easy command of both orchestra and chorus. Perhaps the finest musical moment was towards the end of Act I, the duet between a bloody-handed Macbeth and his wife after the king’s murder, beginning Fatal mia donna. The section is about ten minutes long, and it is both sung and played almost entirely con voce repressa or sotto voce—essentially in a whisper—which requires great technical discipline from both singers and orchestra. The story goes that in the original production, Verdi had his two leads rehearse this scene one hundred fifty times, and then once more—to their fury—on opening night. The effect is one of overwhelming horror at what has been done, mingled with building suspense as the moment of discovery approaches. Macbeth describes how, as he crept away from the King’s room, he heard the courtiers praying in their sleep, “God be with us always,” and he wanted to say “Amen,” but could not. Perché, perché, he repeats over and over, in an incredibly beautiful moment of the duet: why, why, could he not say “Amen”? The beauty of the music and the truth of the vignette float lightly around him like a proffered grace of repentance—but he does not answer his own question, and the moment passes.

One got the sense that McVicar wanted to play up the ugliness and shock value of evil while isolating it in a kind of petri dish onstage, letting the audience look at it for entertainment but keeping it at a safe, clinical distance. But Verdi’s music is designed to do the exact opposite. Aided by the excellence and chemistry of the performers, McVicar was, like poor Giosue Scozza, outclassed.

Verdi leads the spectator down the pathway of weakness, to the moment of crisis, to the horror of unrepented guilt and through evil’s destructive consequences. It is a deeply personal journey in the sense that each spectator will relate differently to the inner struggle between good and evil. But Verdi also points to the universal impact of sin on society. Strangely—and no doubt accidentally—McVicar’s staging hinted at a parallel between Macbeth’s murder of innocents and our own state-sanctioned murders, especially of the unborn.

A gory prop in the witches’ scenes represents a stillborn infant, the “bloodstained child” that prophesies to Macbeth that no man born of woman can harm him. Once that visual appears, the agonizing guilt of having “murdered sleep” takes on new associations. Then a strange bit of silent acting brings a small white box, like a baby’s coffin, on stage. The three witch children peer inside and, unexpectedly humanized for a brief moment, run away lamenting. Is the box intended to represent the burial of Macbeth’s cherished hopes? In any case, the image of tragic infant death is inescapable.

After that, the famous chorus Patria oppressa, bemoaning the oppression of the homeland, becomes doubly poignant: “We cannot give you the sweet name of motherland, now that you have become a tomb for your sons. . . . At each new dawn a cry goes up to outrage heaven.” The country ruled by murderous tyrants slays those it ought to protect, both in fact and fiction. There was palpable tension in the audience during this scene, and its aria, movingly sung by Macduff (Matthew Cairns), was met with thunderous applause: Ah, la paterna mano, expressing the grief of a parent who could not protect his children from violent death: “A father’s hand was not there to shield you, my dear ones.”

“The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing,” Pascal tells us—not in justification of sentimentalism, but to describe the heart’s unique role in movement towards good and against evil. In Macbeth, Verdi gives a powerful lesson on how the heart should react to evil—an attitude adopted by the musicians themselves in the teeth of a tediously dehumanizing production. McVicar may be an artist, but Verdi is a man with a heart as big as this.

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Jane Stannus is a contributor to the Spectator, the Critic, the Telegraph, and other publications.