Top Three Moments for Verdi's Lady Macbeth

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Verdi's musical transformation of Shakespeare's Macbeth shines the spotlight so brightly on his ruthless and ambitious wife that perhaps the opera should be renamed in her honor. "No one would buy a ticket to see Macbeth without asking who the Lady Macbeth was," explains F. Paul Driscoll, editor of Opera News magazine. "It's an extraordinary opportunity for a singing actress. She just gallops away with the show!”

On this edition of Opera in Brief, we explore this theme with three legendary performances:

1. Maria Callas

“Callas could sing with great beauty but it was not a beautiful voice," Driscoll noted. "And Verdi was not concerned about that for this particular role. The odd sound, tang and timbre of her voice works beautifully in shaping this character's overriding ambition.” In this excerpt from a concert recording made when Callas was not yet 30 years old, “she's telling Macbeth to come home because she can't wait to start killing people!”

2.  Leonie Rysanek

“Leonie Rysanek was probably best known as a Strauss and Wagner soprano,” Driscoll reminded us, “but she also sang quite a bit of Verdi. In fact, she sang the Met premiere of Macbeth in 1959 which had originally been scheduled for Maria Callas. Rysanek did have a beautiful voice and she was a riveting stage performer. In this particular recording she's probably at her peak vocally. This aria really has no parallel in the play. It's an invention of Verdi's to give you a connection to her other worldly side. She says 'la luce langue' (the light is languishing) -- time is running out...we have to get rid of the next person in this little chess game! This is her last big moment before we see her begin to crumble.”

3.  Shirley Verrett

“Lady Macbeth's famous sleepwalking scene is one of the great soprano showpieces.” Driscoll concluded. "What's interesting about the way Verdi sets this is that she's so vulnerable at the very beginning. She's in this horrible waking dream where she can't sleep but she also can't wake up. Shirley Verrett gives you everything that needs to be there. She's obviously a very powerful, intelligent, elegant woman – someone who is a logical queen. But she's broken now. And there's nothing that's going to put her back together. I think this is a work of genius.”