“Historical Performances”: Chester Ludgin, Grace Bumbry in Verdi’s “Macbeth” – San Francisco Opera, October 6, 1967

After a Sunday matinee, when I saw my first ever “La Gioconda” [Historical Performances: “La Gioconda” with Leyla Gencer, Renato Cioni, Grace Bumbry and Maureen Forrester – San Francisco Opera, October 1, 1967], I returned to the War Memorial Opera House the following Friday night for my first performance ever of Verdi’s “Macbeth”.

Early Verdi” Does Shakespeare

I was familiar with Shakespeare’s play on which Verdi’s opera is based. (As a teenager, I performed in the summer Shakespeare Festivals at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater, sometimes as a “dancer on the green” in pre-performance festivities. I also had parts in three of the summer festival plays onstage at the Globe. For two of these plays, I took over a role from an actor who departed the summer festival early. (One of the latter was a comprimario role, Tim in Beaumont and Fletcher’s Elizabeth play “The Knight of the Burning Pestle” when Joel Martin and me were the ever-present sidekicks to the play’s star – actor Victor Buono, himself still in his late teens.)

Shakespeare had been an important influence on me for over a decade, as had my passion for operatic performance. Verdi’s “Macbeth” would be my third Verdi opera based on a Shakespeare play that I experienced.

[Below: Macbeth (Chester Ludgin) after he is crowned King of Scotland; edited image, based on a Hank Kranzler photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

From my earliest acquaintances with Verdi’s late career masterpieces – “Otello” and “Falstaff” – I regarded them as works of one genius (Verdi) adapting the works of another genius (Shakespeare) into another medium, each work standing on its own merits.

I had already seen “Otello” three times [Historical Performances: Mario del Monaco’s Overpowering Otello – San Francisco Opera’s San Diego Tour – November 5, 1959 and Historical Performances: McCracken, de los Angeles and Gobbi in “Otello” – San Francisco Opera, October 9, 1962 and Historical Performances: “Otello” with McCracken, Gobbi and Lorengar – San Francisco Opera, September 19, 1964].

Twice, I had seen “Falstaff” [Historical Performances: “Falstaff” with Evans, Simionato, Stewart – San Francisco Opera, October 11, 1962 and Historical Performances: Ramon Vinay, Raina Kabaivanska Lead Memorable “Falstaff” – San Francisco Opera, November 20, 1966.]

Verdi’s “Macbeth”, is regarded by many authorities as containing many charming and forward-looking features, but is considered by many a lesser work, a product of Verdi’s early period of experimenting with new ways of composing opera. The opera’s supernatural elements – the witches – have even been mocked (See my performance review of Sir David Pountney’s production, created for Zurich Oper, which I saw in San Francisco [Review: Hampson Transcends Quirky “Macbeth” – San Francisco Opera, November 18, 2007]).

There is one operatic expert, whose opinions I cherish, who had an especially high regard for the work – that expert, Giuseppe Verdi himself. He had praised “Macbeth”, his tenth opera, as the best of the operas he had written up to that time.

The opera differs in important ways from Verdi’s Shakespearean source, because the performance of an opera is a fundamentally different activity than the presentation of a Shakespeare play, An audience member’s reaction to the spoken dialogue of the play differs from that person’s reaction to the vocal and orchestral music of the opera. I trust the Bard’s choice of dialogue that he created for the play, and trust Verdi’s choice of music and text to be performed for the opera.

Director Louis Erlo, Production Designer Leo Kerz and Choreographer Thomas Andrew

The performance I attended utilized San Francisco Opera’s mid-20th century production of “Macbeth”. To this day, I believe that dark, foreboding production, expanding the supernatural elements to include Verdi’s seldom heard “Macbeth” ballet (which Verdi clearly preferred be performed), as the most dramatically effective presentation of Verdi’s “Macbeth” I have experienced.

The performance was staged by French director Louis Erlo, whose San Francisco Opera debut took place the previous year for the company’s historic mounting of Berlioz’ operatic masterpiece [Historical Performances: Crespin, Vickers in first American production of Berlioz’ “Les Troyens” – San Francisco Opera, November 12, 1966.] In 1966 Erlo also directed this performance’s Lady Macbeth, Grace Bumbry, in her San Francisco Opera debut as Carmen [Historical Performances: An Exciting “Carmen” from Grace Bumbry and Jon Vickers – San Francisco Opera, November 27, 1966.] For the 1967 San Francisco Opera season, he also directed productions of Charpentier’s “Louise” and Gounod’s “Faust”.

[Below: Director Louis Erlo; edited image, based on a selection from the Photographs en Rhône-Alpes of the bibliothèque municipale de Lyon.]

Erlo’s direction provided unique insights into the title character and his relationship with Lady Macbeth. It focused on the psychological impact on Macbeth of both the witches’ prophecies and the murderous acts his wife encouraged him to pursue to hasten fulfillment of the prophecies.

The production was a revival of a 1955 production by Polish-German director Leo Kerz, who had created several new, forward-looking, but at the time controversial, productions in 1955 and 1956, during the second and third seasons of Kurt Herbert Adler’s general directorship. (Prior to Adler’s assumption the general directorship, San Francisco Opera’s existing productions typically consisted of backwalls connected to sidewalls angled to enhance audience visibility, most created by Armando Agnini during the first three decades of the company’s history.)

[Below: Leo Kerz’ set design for King Macbeth’s court; edited image, based on a Hank Kranzler photograph, courtesy sof the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

Kerz’ “Macbeth” production used scrims and imaginative lighting. Departing from previous practice, Kerz’ set designs utilized the War Memorial Opera House’s high vertical mainstage spaces. His eerily dark production proved an effective presentation of Verdi’s operatic visualization of Shakespeare’s Scottish play.

[Below: Scenic Designer Leo Kerz, edited image of 1968 James D. Sage photograph.]

Choreographer Thomas Andrew and the Witches Ballet

Notable were the appearances of the witches, including their participation with San Francisco Opera principal dancers in the rarely performed “Macbeth” ballet. This was the second major ballet from the new choreographer Thomas Andrew, who had created the choreography for “La Gioconda”. There would be four more productions that season choreographed by Andrew – the full Walpurgisnacht ballet for Gounod’s “Faust” and the dancing in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera”, Charpentier’s “Louise” and Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore.

Maestro Giuseppe Patane and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Maestro Giuseppe Patane led the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in the mood-setting “Macbeth” overture. Women of the San Francisco Opera were divided into three groups, whose choral anthem M’e frulata nel pensier prepared the audience for the arrival of Macbeth and Banquo, and for the mischief the witches had in mind for each of them.

Chester Ludgin’s Macbeth

New York baritone Chester Ludgin, then 42 years old, was a principal baritone with the New York City Opera. There, six years prior, he created the lead role of John Proctor in Ward’s opera “The Crucible”. His San Francisco Opera main season credits to date had included principal roles in the 1964, 1965 and 1966 seasons and four performances as Barnaba, preceding his final Barnaba five days earlier.

I found Ludgin’s performance as Macbeth as more nuanced and introspective than his portrayal of the villainous Barnaba. Under Erlo’s direction and surrounded by Kerz’ sets, the focus of the opera rarely shifts away from Macbeth and from the impact of witches and wife on his deteriorating mental state.

Macbeth begins the opera with the title of Thane of Glamis (a lesser noble in the Scottish hierarchy). Ludgin portrayed Macbeth’s ambitions, enlivened by the witches’ prophecies of future titles – Salve, O Macbetto, di Caudor sire; Salve o Macbetto, di Scozia re! These prophecies that Macbeth welcomes are followed by the witches’ greeting to Banquo “Though you will be lesser than Macbeth, you will be the father of kings”.

Moments later word arrives that the current Scottish King Duncan has chosen Macbeth to be Earl of Cawdor. With the first of witches’ two prophecies realized, Ludgin’s Macbeth becomes intensely interested in the second part of the witches’ prophecy, “Macbetto di Scozia re!“, while simultaneously becoming obsessed with the witches’ forecast that Banquo will be the father of kings.

[Below: Chester Ludgin as Macbeth, after he has become king; edited image, based on a Hank Kranzler photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. Archives.]

Throughout the opera Ludgin persuasively portrayed the devastating impact of these supernatural beings on both Macbeth’s mental state and his physical acts. Responding to the witches’ sorcery and his wife’s incitement to regicide, Macbeth murders King Duncan himself and arranges for assassins to murder Banquo and his son, but Banquo’s son, to Macbeth’s horror, escapes. Driven to near madness by an hallucination of Banquo’s ghost, Ludgin’s Macbeth again seeks out the witches.

In the witches’ mysterious cave (where the witches’ revelries include the ballet in which “spirits, devils and goblins dance”), Ludgin’s Macbeth is horrified by a procession of future kings followed by Banquo. Macbeth’s horror is tempered only by the seeming mitigation of predictions that Macbeth is safe unles Birnham Wood moves and that “no man born of woman” can harm him. Verdi, like Shakespeare, later reveals that both prophecies are merely witches’ tricks.

[Below: Macbeth (Chester Ludgin, center), once more seeking information about his future from the assembled witches (crouching, left) is dismayed by a procession of future kings (beginning at far right) who will succeed him; edited image, based on Hank Kranzler photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Grace Bumbry’s Lady Macbeth and Other Cast Members

The performance was enhanced by Missouri mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry’s vocally and dramatically triumphant portrayal of Lady Macbeth. Bumbry was mesmerizing in the role. Her opening scene was impactful, reading aloud Lady Macbeth’s letter from her husband about his ascendancy to the Thaneship of Cawdor, a promotion predicted by witches he encountered. Learning that the withches also predicted Macbeth would afterward become the Scottish king in the savage aria Vieni! t’affretta! , Bumbry’s Lady revealed the bloodthirsty side to her ambitions for her husband.

[Below: Grace Bumbry expresses her determination that her husband pursue all avenues, including criminal, to become king; edited image, based on a Hank Kranzler photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

Erlo’s staging of Bumbry’s scenes with Ludgin, emphasizes the impact on Macbeth of Lady Macbeth’s murderous ambition to pursue the actualization of the witches’ prophecy.

[Below: Macbeth (Chester Ludgin, left) reluctantly yields to the dangerous plotting of Lady Macbeth (Grace Bumbry) to fulfill the witches’ prophecy; edited image, based on a a Hank Kranzler photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

Bumbry was brilliant in performing the series of showpiece arias that define her character: La luce langue, in which Lady Macbeth expresses her delight in anticipation of Banquo’s soon-to-happen murder; Si colmi il calice di vino eletto, Lady Macbeth’s insincere welcome to banquet guests; and, in the famous Sleepwalking Scene, the delirious “handwashing aria” Una macchia è qui tutt’ora.

[Below: Lady Macbeth (Grace Bumbry) pretends that all is normal as she welcomes banquet guests with the aria “Si colmi il calice di vino eletto“; edited image, based on a Hank Kranzler photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Arxchives.]

Others in the cast were Thomas O’Leary as Banquo, Daniele Barioni as Macduff, L. D. Clements as Malcolm, Carol Kirkpatrick as Lady Macbeth’s lady-in-waiting, Sylvia Anderson as a Servant, Allan Monk as an Assassin, John Beauchamp as a Medic and Sheila Marks and Rod MacWherter as Apparitions.

Final Thoughts

Director Erlo’s approach to the opera made for a more intensely dramatic reading of Verdi’s opera, than I have seen subsequently. Euro focused the staging in foreboding physical settings, especially those in which supernatural forces dominate. The opera, presented as exploration of Macbeth’s madness, works wonderfully.


A day and a half later, I would return to the opera house for my second performance that season of “The Magic Flute” that I had seen earlier and on which I have already reported [Historical Performances: Geraint Evans, Stuart Burrows, Jane Marsh Welcome “The Magic Flute” into the San Francisco Opera repertory – September 23, 1967 and October 8, 1967]. A week later I would be back again for my first ever performance of Charpentier’s “Louise”.