Sun 19 May 2013
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.