Michael, Nadja


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.

MedeaGiovanni Simone Mayr - Medea in Corinto

Bayerisches Staatsoper, Munich 2010 | Ivor Bolton, Hans Neuenfels, Nadja Michael, Ramón Vargas, Alastair Miles, Alek Shrader, Elena Tsallagova, Kenneth Robertson, Francesco Petrozzi, Laura Nicorescu | Arthaus

The Medea myth has provided great material for opera composers over the years, and it’s not difficult to see why. It has all the ingredients – as it’s played here in this version – for the operatic favourite, the ‘melodramma tragico’. A Greek mythological tale of royal kingdoms at war, marriage alliances and a sorceress who seeks to disrupt it all, it’s a storyline nonetheless that can be accessible to a modern audience, dealing with very real human emotions. There’s a joyous wedding – between Creusa and Jason – but a psycho ex-wife, Medea, who still represents a threat to the union, and a struggle over custody of the kids from her and Jason’s previous marriage, which he wants annulled based on the fact that the witch cast a spell over him. Don’t they all. And would you believe it, the ex turns up at the wedding and causes a bit of a scene. Nightmare.

There are many other facets to this storyline, from the classical mythological view of the relationship between humans and the gods to the character-driven human drama full of emotional turmoil and conflicts between duty and desire. It’s a subject consequently that has been covered many times in opera over the centuries, and is still returned to even by modern composers, with Aribert Reimann’s 2010 Medea viewing Jason’s entering into prestigious marriage to Creusa as an act of social climbing, leaving behind his past for an alliance with Corinth. For the director of this production of Mayr’s 1813 opera Medea in Corinto, Hans Neuenfels, the story is about people living in fear and acting out of fear. You might not get that quite so much from the original score and libretto, but that at least is the spin put on this production of a rarely performed opera recorded in 2010 at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich.

Medea

In Medea in Corinto, the forthcoming union between Creusa and Jason (Giasone in Italian) is a promise to the end of the long wars that have devastated the nation and an end to living in fear. But right from the beginning, Neuenfel’s radical staging puts forward a view that Corinth – perhaps on account of having to deal with the constant threat of violence – has become a corrupt and violent police state, with a cruel and sadistic king, Creon/Creonte. There are threats to the marriage also not only from Medea, who has turned up demanding an audience with Giasone, but – in this version – from Aegeus/Egeo, who is still engaged to Creusa and has brought his own personal army with him to push forward his claim to the throne.

Much of this interpretation of the myth is, it has to be said, suggested by the staging rather more than anything in the score or the libretto. That kind of practice can often be a valid exercise of theatrical interpretation, but it’s perhaps a little more dubious here since it seems to be acting in a way that is contrary to the intent of the piece, the kind of director-imposed regietheater view that is despised by a certain (intransigent) section of the opera-viewing public. In the opening scenes then, while Creon is talking about peace, he and his troops are at the same time engaged in the abuse, torture and execution of ordinary citizens in a sadistic manner that clearly evokes Pasolini’s Salò (thankfully without its worst excesses). In other scenes, either the director doesn’t trust the singing to be strong enough or the score to be deep or interesting enough, and includes silent background figures of Hymen and Amor, who play out mimes in the background, as well as solo musicians to highlight and contrast the actions with the words of the libretto.

Whether it’s true to Mayr’s vision of the Medea myth, this kind of reworking of the material is of course valid in the context of the nature of the opera’s theme of shifting political agendas, where the stated aims of those in power is often contrary to their actions and their actual intent. More than that however, without a little bit of subversion to enliven it, Medea in Corinto might otherwise be a very dull opera indeed. Musically, the studied classicism of Mayr’s arrangements – stately Mozart-like opera seria without the recitative and singing that is heading towards bel canto – is quite beautiful, but can come across as rather bland, certainly when compared to Cherubini’s fiery version, which is an evident model here. Although the qualities of his composition here are debatable, or at least unfashionable as far as modern opera tastes go, the composer now almost forgotten in the history of opera, Mayr could once count both Bellini and Donizetti as pupils, and Medea in Corinto is consequently not without a considerable amount of interest.

Medea

If the Bayerische Staatsoper production then is somewhat radical, it at least tries to make the classical themes relevant to a modern audience, the three-level stage reflecting the three periods through which the audience view this opera – a modern view of Mayr’s period interpretation of classical antiquity. The motivations and intentions can however be a bit dubious in some other respects – Medea first appearing in a witch-doctor costume, Aegeus bizarrely killing his own men in the second act – but it certainly holds the attention better than a more straightforward traditional production might. The production however also benefits here from some fine singing, Nadja Michael in particular delivering a fabulous rich deep almost mezzo performance as Medea – here as elsewhere a real showpiece role – but the singing all round is of a very high quality. A slimmed-down Ramón Vargas is notable as Giasone, but the role requires a deeper near-baritone range in some parts that the Mexican tenor can’t reach with sufficient force. Unfashionable it may be, but if you are looking to study the often fascinating intricacies and colour of the score, it’s superbly delivered by the Bayerisches Staatsorcheter under Ivor Bolton.

Enjoyment of this rare opera is assured however by the High Definition quality of the Arthaus Blu-ray release. The image quality is flawless, the filming making use of frequent close-ups, but also allowing the (sometimes distracting) background drama to be followed. The audio tracks are LPCM Stereo and HD Master Audio 5.0, both of which are simply outstanding with remarkable clarity and bass presence, and only a little reverb of stage ambience on occasion from the microphone placements. Extra features include a 30-minute Making of – which is made up entirely of interviews with the cast and production team – and a very informative 16-minute Interview with the president of the Simone Mayr institute.