VERDI: "MACBETH." Shirley Verrett, mezzo-soprano; Leo Nucci, baritone; Veriano Luchetti, tenor; Samuel Ramey, bass; Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna conducted by Riccardo Chailly. London 417 525-2 (two compact discs). Although it's too early to tell what the forthcoming Claude d'Anna film will look like, this soundtrack album should appeal mostly as an aural souvenir. The set, hampered by a substandard orchestra and superannuated Bolognese chorus, simply doesn't make it on its own merits. Verrett's once electrifying Lady Macbeth competes with its eleven-year-old recorded self and the fuzzy tone and constricted resources embody the law of diminishing returns. Nucci's plangent baritone rarely probes Macbeth's guilt-ridden internal landscape. Ramey offers Banquo's aria with characteristically luxuriant results, while Luchetti grandstands his way through Macduff's patriotic plaints. Chailly keeps it all moving without much care for the flexibility of the Verdian line.
VERDI: "LA FORZA DEL DESTINO." Maria Callas, Elena Nicolai, Richard Tucker, Carlo Tagliabue, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni. Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Milano, conducted by Tullio Serafin. Angel CDCC-47581 (three mono compact discs). Callas' first commercially recorded Verdi heroine brims with revelations on how to shade the line for maximal expressive possibilities. For sheer amplitude, other sopranos may outsing her brooding Leonora di Vargas. None betters the wrenching tragedy evoked by the late Greek-American diva. Serafin's masterfully idiomatic conducting of the fervent Milan forces often towers over the heated, intellectualized readings of his successors. But this decently remastered 1955 original yields less admirable virtues, too, including Tucker's lachrymose Alvaro, Tagliabue's rusty Carlo, Nicolai's provincial Preziosilla and a wealth of niggling cuts.
BENSON: "MOON RAIN AND MEMORY LANE"; "FIVE LYRICS OF LOUISE BOGAN." Lucy Shelton, soprano; Jan DeGaetani, mezzo-soprano; Steven Doane, Steven Isserlis, cellos; Bonita Boyd, flute. Gasparo GSCD-261 (compact disc). In the course of these two song cycle, Detroit-born Warren Benson proves an adept, sensitive master of setting word to music. The instrumentations are clever: The solo flute provides a welcome contrast to the mezzo solo in the Bogan cycle, and the cello duo aptly complements the soprano in "Moon Rain" (to six poems by May Swenson, Judson Jerome and others). Benson juxtaposes wide-leaping intervals with passages of melisma and other wordless effects. All that's missing is a sense of harmonic destination. Shelton and DeGaetani fulfill their duties impeccably. Gasparo's recording, made at the Eastman School, is outstanding.
LISZT: "CHRISTUS." Benita Valente, Marjana Lipovsek, Peter Lindroos, Tom Krause; Slovak Philharmonic Choir, Rotterdam Philharmonic conducted by James Conlon. Erato ECD-88231 (three compact discs). Liszt's rambling 1866 oratorio, a quasi-mystical justification of the composer's Catholic faith, betrays the long years of writing and its sources in two disparate works. The recourse to plain chant and the budding chromaticism of the score provide almost a catalogue of Lisztian preoccupations. That may explain the recent resurgence of interest in "Christus." Readings as dedicated as Conlon's won't hurt the cause, either. The live circumstances of the 1985 performance were clearly uninhibiting factors, with the four soloists and the splendid Czech choristers justifying all the fuss. The balances are occasionally askew, but not enough to quell the contagious ardor of the enterprise.
HARBISON: "MIRABAI SONGS." Janice Felty, mezzo-soprano; Collage New Music Ensemble conducted by John Harbison. "VARIATIONS." Rose Mary Harbison, violin; David Satz, clarinet; Ursula Oppens, piano. Northeastern NR-230 (compact disc). The 1982 six-song cycle, with texts drawn from the legendary 16th-Century Indian poet, Mirabai, represents Harbison's most eloquent vocal writing to date. The shimmering exoticism of the eight-member chamber ensemble envelops the mezzo's ritualistic, incantatory line with a flowing carpet of colors, and Felty realizes her assignment fearlessly. "Variations," a set of 15 with finale and epilogue, proposes more abstract challenges in its constant reassignmentof the three participants in the field-and-ground interplay. Although Harbison's writing precludes casual listening, the scoring (identical to that of Bartok's "Contrasts") invites more intense scrutiny. Nothing to fault in the performances or in the recording.