Verdi: Macbeth (1847 version)

Chelsea Opera Group

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 30 March 2008 3.5 stars

Nelly Miricioiu as Lucrezia Borgia at the Opera de Marseille in 2002

If excitement rather than refinement was the order of the day in the Chelsea Opera Group's performance of Verdi's Macbeth, then that's probably in the spirit of the work itself. And as is usual for them, the company chose to perform something a little out of the ordinary, which in this case meant the original 1847 version of the opera.

It's often been suggested that the 'volcanic energy' (Julian Budden's words) which Verdi attained in the original version was dissipated when he revised sections of the score for a Paris production of 1865. With this in mind, Vladimir Jurowski and Richard Jones chose to replace the revised finale with the original when they produced the opera at Glyndebourne last year. But I'm afraid that both that production and the COG's concert performance persuaded me that the revisions are largely improvements. One doesn't really miss the 1865 ballet music in a concert performance – though it proved to be the highlight of the Proms performance last year – but the new version of the Chorus of the Scottish Refugees is far more chilling than the original, Lady Macbeth's 'La luce langue' is greatly superior to the music it replaced, and I far prefer the thrilling 1865 ending to the darker minor-key 1847 finale.

In the COG's performance, however, I was struck by the greater fluidity of the Act II finale in the original version, which became the highlight of the evening. The number in question is the wonderful episode when the Macbeths welcome their guests to a feast, at which Macbeth starts to see the dead Banquo's ghost sitting in what would have been his place. As far as I can tell from the critical edition of the score, this was the main place in which Verdi interfered with an internal section of a number that still remained in the 1865 version, and in this performance it felt like the incisions led to a loss in the flow of the number. But while the overall event was never less than fascinating, in the third and fourth acts I longed for a return to the revisions.

The advent of Nelly Miricioiu from the back of the stage as Lady Macbeth, reading Macbeth's letter, instantly put the performance into a different gear. Nobody else quite brought an air of the theatre to the evening. Her confidence, intensity and energy belied the fact that this was a role debut for her; one might point towards the odd vocal flaw, but these seemed irrelevant in light of her potent characterisation. In fact, there was even a Callas touch to the way she performed the Brindisi, the florid aria 'Trionfai! secure alfine' and the Sleepwalking Scene; I can't think of a part better suited to her talents, and it was only a shame not to be able to hear her perform 'La luce langue' (the replacement for 'Trionfai!').

By her side, it's perhaps inevitable that Olafur Sigurdarson would have a hard time to make quite the same impression in the title role, but he sang with flair and commitment. He came into his own in the second half particularly, when power transfers more to his character in any case, and his big lyric moment was a highlight. All credit, too, to Andrew Rees, a passionate and rounded Macduff who made 'O figli miei' the focal point it should be, and to Paolo Pecchioli's Italianate Banquo. Daniel Grice made a strong impression in three smaller roles, Michael Bracegirdle's Malcolm was sturdily delivered and Stephanie Corley was a beautiful Lady-in-Waiting.

The one notable flaw in the performance was the singing of the chorus when divided. The writing for the women is notoriously difficult because of all that Verdi demands of his witches, and I'm afraid that things seriously sagged in their big scene of Act III, which sounded under-prepared. However, when singing en masse the combined forces of the chorus made a strong and enthusiastic sound. Nobody could expect the level of musicianship shown by the La Scala orchestra under Abbado in the famous 1970s recording, but the COG's orchestra achieved many fine things thanks to the firm and stylish conducting of Brad Cohen; the strings were particularly expressive.

All credit to the Chelsea Opera Group for achieving a fine standard of performance and reminding us of Verdi's original intentions for one of his most personal projects. As an aside, the benefits of the company's return to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the first time after the refurbishment of the Festival Hall were instantly obvious: a much better acoustic than the Cadogan Hall, where the COG had been exiled, and a full house. Future performances include Massenet's Cendrillon with Liora Grodnikaite (formerly of Covent Garden's Young Artists Scheme) on 1 June 2008, Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur with Nelly Miricioiu again on 15 February 2009 and Rossini's William Tell with Majella Cullagh on 7 June 2009.

By Dominic McHugh

Recent reviews of the Chelsea Opera Group:
Beatrice di Tenda with Nelly Miricioiu
Maria Stuarda with Majella Cullagh