Macbeth


Macbeth

Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2013 | Massimo Zanetti, Martin Kušej, Zeljko Lucic, Goran Jurić, Nadja Michael, Evgeniya Sotnikova, Wookyung Kim, Emanuele D’Aguanno, Christoph Stephinger, Andrea Borghini, Rafał Pawnuk, Iulia Maria Dan, Tölzer Knabenchor | Live Internet Streaming, 11 May 2013

I’ve seen enough serial-killer horror films to know what it means when a room is “decorated” in plastic sheeting. I’ve also seen enough Martin Kušej stage productions to know he likes to mess up the stage with splashes of blood around the place. I also know Verdi’s Macbeth well enough (better than Shakespeare’s original work admittedly) to know that there’s ample opportunity then for the red stuff to flow liberally in the Bayerische Staatsoper’s new production. With promotional images showing a stage filled with 16,000 skulls, it looked like someone was going to have quite a job hosing down the sheeting at the end of this one. So how come this production never quite lived up to its potential?

On paper - and in promotional images - it all looks good. There’s a strong, dark concept here to match the darkness of Shakespeare’s vision and Verdi’s brooding 1847 account of it. “If we can’t make something great out it”, Verdi wrote to his librettist Piave, “let’s at least try to make it something out of the ordinary”. Verdi’s Macbeth is indeed a pale shadow of the original work, but in its own way it is something extraordinary. Martin Kušej likewise looks well placed to bring something extraordinary out if the work, if not indeed something great. His productions, as I’ve noted in the past (in Die Fliegende Höllander, in Genoveva, in Rusalka) are often concerned with elements of class, and there’s plenty of social climbing ambition to be found in Verdi’s Macbeth.

Verdi’s choruses, his placing of the voices of the people up there on the stage, provide a clear dividing line between the machinations of the royal titled nobility and the common people. Kušej acknowledges those divisions, but also recognises that in Verdi’s work the voice of the people is a rather more complex one. They’re the driving force that celebrates the victories of Macbeth and Banquo, are sincere in their outpouring of unrestrained grief at the death of Duncan and, most obviously, are the motivating force that overthrows their country from the repressive regime that it descends into under Macbeth’s bloody reign.

The masses also represent a certain fantastic element in Verdi’s version of Shakespeare’s play, since the witches here are not three weird sisters, but a chorus who determine the direction of fate and the destiny of the major players. There’s a level of complicity then in their actions that endorses, idolises (lighters aloft) and encourages the ambitions of the ruling classes, even turning a blind eye (wearing hoods here) to Macbeth’s crimes. They are no mere background chorus then in Kušej ’s production, and it’s hard not to notice their presence and their hand in the playing out of the drama here.

The foreground characters are however rather less well defined. Partly that’s Verdi’s fault in his reduction of the complexity of Shakespeare’s play and his breakdown of the work into four acts that really never flow in a convincingly dramatic way. Within each of those four acts however there is a wealth of characterisation that can be brought out when attention is paid to the score and the vocal writing, but there was something lacking on that front in this production. Zeljko Lucic, as he demonstrated recently in the Metropolitan Opera’s Rigoletto, has a lovely lyrical Verdian baritone, but he doesn’t have the presence, the steel or the personality to bring something greater to the character of Macbeth.

Nadja Michael, it must be said, is not lacking in personality or presence. Even if her singing performances can lack discipline and attention to detail, that’s not so much of an issue with her character here. Verdi didn’t want a beautiful voice for Lady Macbeth, but someone with indeed the kind of personality to bring dramatic expression to the role. Nadja Michael would seem to fit the bill perfectly then and she was indeed quite formidable in aspect, pacing the stage with determination, her face bathed in dark shadows. Her vocal delivery however left something to be desired. She seemed rather restrained in her ‘La luce langue‘ (1865 revised version of the opera performed here), but her deficiencies became more pronounced in the later acts when she really ought to dominate proceedings.

Without the necessary personality and singing ability in these critical roles, it’s difficult to make Macbeth work, no matter how strong the concept, but particularly when they are meant to represent a “killing machine” force. Visually, with the performers and the chorus often balanced on top of a mount of 16,000 skulls, the ‘killing fields’ concept was strong and it would be hard to imagine a darker account of ‘Patria oppressa!‘ than the one that takes place here in a slaughterhouse with naked bodies suspended upside-down from meathooks. There were inevitably some curiosities in the actions of the chorus and in the symbolism of a tent on the stage that seemed representative of royalty or just death, but they did have an unsettling character that worked, particularly when the dying bloody Duncan is seen crawling out of the opening of the tent. Overall however, it all felt very detached from the musical drama, with neither the chorus or the principals ever managing to match the force and darkness of the actual work.

The disjointed approach of the staging perhaps reflects Verdi’s piecemeal approach to the work, but it can be overcome with the right production and casting. Unfortunately, the frequent fades to black with brief pauses for scene changes drain all the energy out of the performances and stall the flow of a work that at least has a strong thematic consistency in the musical composition. Some of the work’s potential was realised at the conclusion, which benefitted also from a beautifully sung Macduff (Wookyung Kim), but it was definitely too little and too late. The score was at least given a superb account from the Bayerisches orchestra under Massimo Zanetti, but the production never allowed those essential characteristics that make Verdi’s Macbeth a powerful if flawed work to assert themselves and hold all the various elements together.

This performance of Macbeth was broadcast live on 11th May 2013 via the Bayerische Staatsoper’s own Live Internet Streaming service.

MacbethGiuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Phyllida Lloyd, Harry Fehr, Simon Keenlyside, Raymond Aceto, Liudmyla Monastyrska, Elisabeth Meister, Nigel Cliffe, Ian Lindsay, Steven Ebel, Dimitri Pittas, Will Richardson | Opus Arte

If the concept behind Phyllida Lloyd’s direction at the Royal Opera House production of Verdi’s Macbeth (the 2002 production revived here under director Harry Fehr) isn’t immediately obvious and doesn’t seem totally coherent, it’s perhaps because the marriage of Verdi and Shakespeare itself in this earlier opera of the composer (unlike the magnificent later adaptations Otello and Falstaff) isn’t the most consistent or coherent either. Rather than attempt to impose a personal reading into some kind of structure or workable concept onto the work, or bring it closer into line with the dramatic intentions of Shakespearean original, Lloyd’s production rather impressively remains faithful to Verdi’s imperfect interpretation of the work, working closely to mirror the tone of the production with what Simon Keenlyside, in an accompanying interview on the DVD and Blu-ray, vividly describes as the “black tides” of Verdi’s score.

There are a couple of strong themes within the work that the director successfully latches onto in order to put that wonderful score right up there on the stage in visual terms. The most evident is the colour scheme (reflected in the poster designs and the packaging of the DVD) of black, white and red. That’s an obvious means to reflect the moral absolutes that are raised in the work, as well as the bloody violence that ensues from their transgressions, but it also effectively matches the colour of Verdi’s musical dynamic. Gold also features, as the prize of the crown, but also the “gilded cage” that entraps Macbeth. The other theme, one that is perhaps reflects the Shakespearean themes as much as Verdi’s treatment of them, is in how the production strives to make the horror itself and the full consequences of it visible. Here the violence is not something that takes place off-stage, but rather its true nature is made ever present, and its consequences must be lived with. The reign of blood that is embarked upon is visible throughout here and no amount of hand-washing will completely erase it.

Macbeth
Accordingly, right from the opening of Act 1, the witches - red turbaned and mono-browed – make their prophesies to Macbeth and Banquo, but instead of vanishing into the mist, they remain on the stage and appear throughout the opera at key moments – a witch can for example be seen delivering Macbeth’s letter directly to his wife, and one places the crown into Macbeth’s hands, another hands him the knife that takes the lives of the children of his rivals – a constant visual reminder to the audience of their prophesy being fulfilled, just as it the score and libretto also make direct reference to it. The stage is often littered with the bodies of Macbeth’s crimes that usually take place off-stage, the consequences of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s actions here made plainly visible in all their horror. The announced execution of the former Thane of Cawdor, leading to the fulfilment of the first of the prophesies, is shown here and made real – Banquo’s ghost is not just the figure of a fevered imagination, his dead body serves as a physical reminder and his apparition is up there on the stage. There’s no holding back either on the “original sin” of Duncan’s death, his bloody and mutilated body displayed for all to see. Nor is there any sparing from showing the killing of children or the masses of victims among his own people that number among the king’s crimes. And since all this is so vividly described in Verdi’s score, why should it not be?

Macbeth

Verdi’s Macbeth is an opera nonetheless that needs a little bit of personality injected into it. It’s not entirely successful on its own terms, and playing as such, it can never entirely convince. Directing the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Antonio Pappano seems determined to tease out some greater subtleties in the score that aren’t really there. It’s consequently a little bit too delicate, when a bit of a heavier punch would be more appropriate, but it does manage to tease that gloomy darkness out of the work. This Macbeth isn’t Shakespeare, it’s early Verdi, and yes, there are signs of the composer’s later greatness here, modernising and moving away from the Italian opera conventions for a purer dramatic tone (the bel canto coloratura of Lady Macbeth’s arias ‘Si colmi il calice di vino eletto’ and Macbeth’s mad scene notwithstanding) that is in keeping with the darker tone of the work, but with its Verdian patriotic laments and choruses (‘Patria oppressa!) it’s still not the most sophisticated or faithful treatment of Shakespeare.

Or perhaps I’m underestimating Verdi’s work here, because there are interesting elements that can be drawn out of the opera’s score and its treatment of the subject. The rather more daring 2010 production at the Paris Opéra under the direction of Dmitri Tcherniakov with Teodor Currentzis conducting makes a strong case for it, but if there’s any attempt to bring those elements out here, there’s a sense that the performances, the orchestration and the staging of the Royal Opera House production aren’t always working in common accord. For all its efforts to put the horror up on the stage and the close attention paid to the score, there’s initially a detachment between the orchestration and the performances in Act I at least, which seems to be down to there not being enough attention paid to the acting. Things warm up a little by the end of Act II, Act III’s potions, prophesies and apparitions are delightfully staged, and thereafter the deepening horror of the drama and the score starts to make the full extent of its presence felt.

At the very least, the listener will be beaten into submission – as they should be – by the singing and presence of Lady Macbeth. The formidable ringing tone and sheer power of Ukranian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska’s voice certainly achieves that, even if there isn’t always an emotional depth behind her pronouncements and her acting ability is practically non-existent. With that voice, and Verdi behind it, that’s not something to worry about in this particular opera however. On the lighter end of the register Simon Keenlyside is a true Verdi baritone. His consideration of his lines and delivery of them makes real the forced bravado and the underlying horror of his fate that lies in his character. That’s quite impressive, particularly in his death scene aria ‘Mal per me’ (the opera working from Verdi’s 1865 revision of the opera, but successfully reinstating some of the 1847 cuts). Banquo is also well served by American bass, Raymond Aceto, and his Gran Scena ‘Studia il passo, o mio figlio’ is sung very well.

The Blu-ray release of Macbeth is up to the expected high standards, the strong high contrast lighting showing good detail, while the mixing on both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks give a fine account of the score, the mixing (along with Pappano’s conducting), achieving a good balance between the orchestration and the singing voices. Extras on the BD include a Cast Gallery. Behind the Scenes Rehearsals and Interviews with Simon Keenlyside, Raymond Aceto and Liudmyla Monastyrska. I enjoyed listening to their views here on their characters and the challenges of the opera. The booklet contains an essay by Mike Ashman which considers the nature of the opera as it is presented in this production, and revival director Harry Fehr provides a detailed walk-through synopsis that is related to what is sung.

MacbethGiuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Opéra National de Paris, 2009 | Teodor Currentzis, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Dimitris Tiliakos, Violeta Urmana, Furruccio Furlanetto, Letitia Singleton, Stefano Secco, Alfredo Nigro, Yuri Kissin | Bel Air Classiques

Dmitri Tcherniakov (now there’s a name to strike fear into the heart of every lover of traditional opera stagings) comes up with an interesting concept for this 2009 production for the Paris Opera. He sees the Scottish play in terms of a kind of American Beauty satire of modern life, with GoogleEarth-style 3-D overhead projections zooming into the map of a small surburban town, where we are treated to a peak through the windows into the drawing room of one particular moderately wealthy middle-class family. There erupts a power battle of social climbing, domestic disputes, vanity and identity crises that culminates in moral, social and personal breakdown.

That’s all very well, but Macbeth is Macbeth and American Beauty is American Beauty, and I imagine that some people would rather that the two remain entirely separate entities – except Verdi’s Macbeth was never really Shakespeare in the first place. Verdi does revenge and revolution well, and he also does drawing room melodrama well (it’s hard to beat La Traviata for that), and it’s hard to see Verdis Macbeth – which is certainly more domestic than political – as anything other than a Verdi opera, resounding with cries of “Vendetta!”. In the Italian translation, there’s little of Shakespeare’s poetry here (although the English subtitles do attempt to bring it back to the source drama), so if it’s all right for Verdi to adapt it to his favourite themes, isn’t it ok for Tcherniakov to adapt it in a way that it relates to a modern-day audience?

Well, evidently that’s for the individual to decide, but although it’s not without its problems, this production of Macbeth is spectacularly staged and sung, with real feeling for the piece and the underlying psychology that it exposes. Principally, there are only two real sets, one for the drawing room drama, the other for the people of the revolution (the people and the three witches converted into a kind of neighbourhood watch) – which perfectly captures the Verdian division of the essence of the drama. The sets are simple, but imaginatively employed, with dark clouds projected over the street scenes, the 3-D graphics superb for all the scene-setting that is required, and the drama within them is brilliantly and effectively staged. Banco’s death, for example, avoids all the usual on-stage dramatic clichés, and he is found left slumped on the ground as a whirlwind of people disperse.

Whether you buy into the staging or not, the performances are absolutely marvellous. Dimitris Tiliakos’ beautifully soft-toned baritone and his sensitive acting performance (again no opera theatrics here) make for a complex and nuanced Macbeth, working in perfect coordination with an equally intriguing Violeta Urmana, who also avoids all the usual Lady Macbeth clichés and even manages a few conjouring tricks while singing with conviction and personality. Furruccio Furlanetto, in duffel coat, is a superb Banco and Teodor Currentzis conducts the Paris orchestra through a powerful and dynamic rendition of the opera, which is as it should be.

Although quite minimalist, Tcherniakov’s set causes some problems with audio and video reproduction, but the issues are relatively minor. With much of it taking place within a box on the stage, the sound isn’t always as dynamic as it could be, and the choruses aren’t quite as full-bodied as you might like, but the detail is there and the impact is fully achieved with a definite woomph to those big Verdi moments. The staging also takes place behind a fine mesh screen, which slightly softens the image (although it suits the tone and lighting of this production), but the netting is only really evident in close-up and is not a major problem. The disc also includes an excellent 32 minute feature which gives a good idea of the ideas and personalities behind the production, with interviews and rehearsal footage.