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La sonnambula – From the essay The witches and the witch: Verdi’s Macbeth by Daniel Albright – Cambridge Opera Journal – 2005

by Luca

La sonnambula.

By the Italian standards of the1840s, Macbeth is nearly an anti-opera, since no one falls in love, the lead singers were carefully chosen for their unattractive voices, and the few pieces that invite vocal display often have an undertone of something hideous or stupid, as if vocal display were forced to confess its own meretriciousness.
The centre of Macbeth is the Granscena del sonnambulismo, a scena without an aria – perhaps it could be called an anti-aria, indeed an anti-mad-scene, in the way that Mary Ann Smart has spoken of Azucena’s music as an anti-mad-scene. As Verdi advised the first Lady, Marianna Barbieri-Nini, on 31 January 1847: the sleepwalking scene . . . so far as the dramatic situation is concerned, is one of the most sublime [più alte] theatrical creations. Bear in mind that every word has a meaning, and that it is absolutely essential to express it both with the voice and with the acting. Everything is to be said sotto voce and in such a way as to arouse terror and pity. Study it well and you will see that you can make an effect with it, even if it lacks one of those flowing, conventional melodies [canti filati, e soliti], which can be found everywhere and which are all alike.
The Aristotelian words ‘terror’ and‘pity’ show how far Verdi had gone in trying to force an Italian opera back into some pre-operatic, archaic model of tragedy. In the first three acts, terror predominates; but in the fourth act, terror is giving way to pity. The Scottish refugees are figures deserving pity; ‘pity’ is the first word of Macbeth’s wheedling fourth-act aria ‘Pietà,rispetto, amore’; and the sleepwalking scene is a psychiatric case-history of a mind so blasted by terror, so burnt out, so evacuated, that the spectator’s pity must be evoked to fill the empty space. Lacking ‘flowing, conventional melodies’, Lady must rely for expression on prettily arpeggiated accompaniment figures, filling the empty spaces between the ghosts of tunes. Verdi spent a great deal of time coaching Barbieri-Nini, the first Lady, in operatic somnambulism. In her memoir she claimed that she worked steadily for three months on the part – this was an exaggeration, but time distortions and sleep deficits figure everywhere in the role of Lady, even in the life of the singer who enacted it: ‘for three months, morning and evening, I tried to imitate those who talk in their sleep, uttering words (as Verdi would say to me) while hardly moving their lips, leaving the rest of the face immobile, including the eyes. It was enough to drive one crazy’. On 11 March 1865 Verdi provided a similar recipe for the revised version, partly informed by his experience of watching the Italian actress Adelaide Ristori in Shakespeare’s play:
[W]e reach the sleepwalking scene, which is always thehigh point of the opera. Anyone who
has seen Ristori knows that it should be done withonly the most sparing gestures, even
being limited to just about a single gesture, that of wiping out a bloodstain that she thinks
she has on her hand. The movements should be slow, and one should not see her taking
steps; her feet should drag over the ground as if she were a statue, or ghost, walking. The
eyes fixed, the appearance corpse-like; she is in agony, and dies soon after. Ristori employed
a rattle in her throat – the death-rattle. In music, that must not and cannot be done; just as
one shouldn’t cough in the last act of La traviata. .. . Here there is an English-horn lament
that takes the place of the death-rattle perfectly well, and more poetically. The piece should
be sung with the utmost simplicity and in voce cupa [ahollow voice] (she is a dying woman)
but without ever letting the voice become ventriloquial.
To Verdi, ‘ventriloquial’ seems to mean ‘toneless’ (elsewhere he speaks of a voice ‘with tone in it, not‘‘ventriloquial’’ ’); the Garzanti dictionary defines ‘ventriloquo’ as a manner of speaking ‘a labbra semichiuse’ (‘with lips half-closed’). But according to another definition, in which ventriloquism refers to throwing one’s voice onto an inanimate object, Lady is quite ventriloquial: much of the burden of expression has been reassigned to the orchestra – the English horn performs a surrogate death-rattle. Parts of her voice have been thrown into the distance: indeed Lady has attained a state of far removal from herself, a sort of ecstasy of despair.
She has contracted. Her single gesture, her brief flares of passion, are intermissions in a state of gesture lessness, paralysis, aphasia. If a corpse could sing, it would sound like this.
Jonas Barish has argued that Verdi’s sleepwalking scene is not a mad scene: it is an organised, coherent piece, without the discontinuities that usually represent madness, and without the musical reminiscences to be found, for example, in the famous mad scene in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor – ‘here the music does not remember very much’. Barish has noticed a crucial featureof the scene: it turns the normal conventions for raving sopranos upside-down, almost as if Verdi had set out to write the exact opposite of a madscene. But perhaps Verdi did this, not to stress Lady’s sanity, but to portray a different species of madness. The extroverted Lucia became a better singer as she went mad, more urgently expressive, more dizzyingly melodic. The introverted Lady, on the other hand, is moving not towards a fantastic rapture but towards catatonia: fining herself down to an almost musicless state, she is losing expressivity, losing anypower to sing. Donizetti’s mad scene was full of pretty quotations from early scenes, as Lucia remembers how she and her lover met at the fountain in happier days; Lucia, so to speak, embraced her opera. But Lady relinquishes her opera, loses any connectedness to her own previous actions. With her words she helplessly returns tothe past, but she can’t recall the right tunes any more. Verdi’s sleepwalking scene is a study in amnesia: the music illustrates the erasing of Lady’s mind, its blanching into a state of silent candour. The text shows
that great gaps are opening in Lady’s intelligence; the music anticipates the final condition, pure extinction of faculty – ‘Out, out, brief candle!’ says Macbeth (5.5.23), but his wife is the one holding the taper.
Catatonia is a disease in which a general paralysis occurs because nerve signals are firing too rapidly to transmitfeasible commands to muscles: and Verdi’s sleepwalking scene is an astonishing exercise in the kinaesthetics of catatonia. The tempo is Largo: the dynamics hover around ppp; but we hear continual allusions to fast trembling, thready pulses, aborted nerve-spasms, unscreamed screams. The scene begins in the fatal F minor of the grand duet ‘Fatal mia donna’ and so much else in the opera. (The opera has two main harmonic regions, F and B flat for the Macbeths, and E for the witches.)The important musical elements in this opening section, a nearly athematic delirium, are these:
(1) a staccato tracery of a slightlyaltered F minor scale, anticipated in the first-act prelude – a bit of musical goose flesh, a sort of petit pas for mice on tiptoe.
(2) adouble-dotted sway, an important theme in the first-act prelude, accompanied byarpeggios of an F minor triad and a C dominant chord, a slow-motion replay of the i-Vmotto – constituent of so many of the opera’s epigrams – here Lady seems to befalling into her private rhythm, a humming self-hypnosis, a druggy state of acedia
(3) areedy chromatic descent, recurring when the doctor notes that she keeps rubbingher hands – this may be one of Verdi’s musical equivalents to Lady’s single gesture,her vain attempt to wash away the blood; or an anticipation of the death-rattle,for Lady is steeped in death, in the midst of death, throughout this scene.
Hand, voice,faculty of sight, seem to be growing displaced into orchestral gestures. Jane Bernstein, who has closely studied descriptions of the hand movements of actresses playing Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth from Sarah Siddons to Adelaide Ristori, notes that in Verdi’s sleepwalking scene ‘her hands take on a preternatural life of their own . . . [the opera] is centred not on the voice but on the body of the prima donna’ –a description that beautifully captures the way in which the disintegration of customary melody reflects the disintegration of the body. King James considered that witches were called sortiari because their practices were determined by lot or chance; and here we see Verdi turning the riddle, generating a scene out of music – bits abutting one another inconsequentially – or, better, with dramatic consequence, not musical.
If the sleepwalking scene isn’t a mad scene in the Lucia manner, what is it? The emphasis on gesture and on the singer’s physical body, the fragmentary, tessellated quality of the musical discourse, the phantasmal aspect of the action – all point to ballet-pantomime instead of opera. Marian Smith, in her remarkable book Ballet and Opera in theAge of Giselle, shows just how ballet-pantomime composers wrestled their music into shapes that embodied action and psychology; she quotes a number of Parisian critics from the 1830s and 1840s:
Ballet music has a particular character: it is more accented, more parlante, more expressive than opera music, because it is not destined only to accompany and enhance the words of the librettist, but to be itself the entire libretto.
Generally, one does not ask for music from a ballet-pantomime composer, but for an orchestra that is the translation,the commentary of the text that one would not otherwise be able to understand.
A ballet-pantomime score, then, isn’t music: it’s just a transposition of wordsand story into wordless sound. If a sylphide flaps her wings, the composer will oblige with a dainty flutter of demisemiquavers. The disrupted gesticisms of Verdi’s sleepwalking scene seem to accord well with such experiments in translating pantomime into music. Smith notices that the old ballet-pantomime is a continual attempt to find surrogates for language: ‘composers, choreographers, and designers at the Opéra introduced words into ballet performances in every way but actually having performers intone them’ – including on-stage placards and orchestral quotations of familiar tunes whose lyrics were relevant to the action. The sleepwalking scene is a sort of ballet-pantomime in which the performer does intone words – words that float in a semi-disconnected way above the descriptively intent orchestral discourse. In the 1865 version of Macbeth, the Hecate ballet-pantomime uses some of the same gestic devices (strengthening the link between Lady and the witches), though the basic Hecate music is an infernal waltz, where as Lady’s basic sleepwalk musicis a lullaby – perhaps one might even call it a ‘Sommeil’. In the third act of Lully’s Atys (1676), there is an eerie scene presided over by the god Morpheus,who sends, first, Phantase to remind the sleeping Atys of the joys of Cybele’s love, and then a dance-chorus of ‘Songes funestes’ to warn Atys of the terrors that would beset a lover faithless to a goddess. Lully carefully separates the soothing dreams from the nightmare; but Verdi mixes them up, creating an effect of false,anxious calm. There is a similar effect in Vivaldi’s flute concerto ‘La notte’, RV 439, with its quick transitions between soft, too-heavy breathing (‘il sonno’) and gasps, thrills (‘fantasmi’). A dream world is an eminently suitable locale for a ballet-pantomime– as Gautier noted ‘fairyland is the place where the action of a ballet can be most easily developed’ – and the music of the sleepwalking scene is a conspectus of sleep.
Barish is right to say that there are no direct quotations, here or elsewhere in the sleepwalking scene, from earlier melodies; but Lady’s opening phrase is full of the ghosts of quotations, quotations in the process of effacing themselves, losing salience. In the first two bars of the D flat major section, we hear, in combination, the falling semitone of the epigram ‘Tutto è finito’ and the scalar rise and octave drop-off that marks Lady’s ambition in several places in the opera, notably (in the 1865 version)Lady’s cry of ‘È necessario’ (from ‘La luce langue’). Verdi places great emphasison the falling semitone by putting the first note in a position where it desperately needs to fall: this figure occupies such positions as BPP-A P (scale degrees P6-5); in some sense the whole sceneis simply stating ‘tutto è finito’, IT’S ALL OVER, in huge letters. When Lady starts to sing, her vocal line doesn’t clash with the slow paroxysms in the orchestra, but it doesn’t pay much attention to the orchestra either – the heavily emphatic voice, singing the sputtery vagrant line ‘Chi poteva in quel vegliardo tanto sangue immaginar?’ (‘Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’), seems disconnected from the accompaniment,disconnected from normal patterns of melodic development, disconnected from itself – a musical equivalent to the involution of Lady’s mind, its self-immural in foot-thick walls. She’s snatching at a tune that she can’t quite find; the witch is self-be witched, lost in her own labyrinth. Sometimes it feels as if Lady is an extraneous figure in her own scene: the orchestral music provides a stunned accompaniment for a zombie ballet, which Lady helplessly figures with vocal graffiti.
The sleepwalking scene offers no abrupt changes in mood – indeed Lady seems to have fallen into some state almost beneath mood, a dead calm; but Verdi has managed to transfer the notion of mad discontinuity to other aspects of his musical discourse,while retaining the sense of a single vast arc of drama. Verdi was one of the first opera composers to note that madness is not pretty. At last Lady’s voice fades out on a cadenza, ‘Andiam, Macbetto’, as if she were sinking into complete rhythmlessness, her private time outside all clock-time. And the sleepwalking scene ends with the tiptoeing-mouse theme from the beginning, now in D flat,not F minor, as if Verdi were imagining Lady stepping into Lethe, entering the tranquillity of oblivion. If this theme were in F minor, the sleepwalking scene would be a segment of an endless purgatorial loop; but in D flat we feel that Lady has reached The End.

The End.

The 1865 version of the opera ends with a chorus, ‘Macbeth, Macbeth ov’è?’ – the headiest, most exultant chorus Verdi was ever to write; rapid, double-dotted, springy, it has it something of the built-in political activism of Hanns Eisler’s marches from the 1930s.
The people of Scotland delight that a thunderbolt from the God of victory has destroyed the usurper; then they honour their new king. If the witches were demons, the play would end with their slinking back, defeated, into hell. But the witches of Macbeth nowhere gnash their teeth or rage at the triumph of justice; in fact their plan succeeds in every last detail, and the army of Macduff and Malcolm is as much an instrument for expediting their wishes as the magic cauldron is. This can be understood, in the orthodox Christian fashion, as the subsumption of partial evils into the universal good; but it can be understood less effortfully as an allegation of something distasteful – petty and deformed – in the action of Providence itself.
Teleology colludes with the wilful; the abyss is full of maggots.