cast

Mary Elizabeth Williams  as Lady Macbeth in an earlier performance, Luis Cansino  as Macbeth, Simon Buttle as Malcolm, Stuart Hulse as Duncan and Miriam Murphy as Lady-in-waiting. Pictures: Richard Hubert Smith

Macbeth

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

VERDI always had King Lear in mind as a possible Shakespeare opera, but in the end it was Otello, Falstaff and Macbeth that he turned his hand to.

The first two, both faultless, gained fame as the last two operas he completed, dating from the 1880s and 1890s. Macbeth had the unusual honour of belonging both to his early period and to his mature period.

First staged in Florence in 1847, it was revisited by the composer and presented in a revised version in 1865, in Paris. By that time he had, in the interim, composed 14 operas, among them some of his most famous, including Il Trovatore and La Traviata. One, Simon Boccanegra, he likewise revisited (24 years later, in 1881); and he would rework Don Carlo (1867), which actually originated in Paris, in 1884.

Mostly Macbeth is performed in the 1865 version, and here, bar a couple of later cuts or reversions, the later version – largely superior - is what we heard.

The other two (late) Shakespeare operas had the enormous advantage of having as librettist the composer Arrigo Boito: a wordsmith and adapter of signal talents (as Falstaff clearly shows). But the Scottish Play had a similar huge advantage too. Verdi’s most significant librettist from 1844 onwards was Francesco Piave, who starting that year with Ernani (derived from Victor Hugo) and the severely dramatic I due Foscari, produced some 11 libretti for the composer, most of which, like Rigoletto, revealed an astounding dramatic sense thanks to an ability to pare down even extended texts to meaningful stage works.

Macbeth (first written in collaboration) ought to make its impact straight away, for it launches with the celebrated, unnerving Witches’ scene. Unfortunate, therefore, that a passable productionmacbeth should launch in so disastrously. The outfits of the massed witches – featuring meaningless pinks, creams and greens - looked ridiculous. Their hand and arm gestures – not remotely together, but flailing - would not have been acceptable in a school production, or any attempted staging from the 1870s or 1920s. Like limp old-fashioned gymnastics, they simply looked footling, and contributed precious nothing to the sinister truths they were supposed to be enunciating.

Spanish baritone Luis Cansino as Macbeth

 

Thank goodness that in two foreign singers, Macbeth (the Spaniard Luis Cansino) and Banquo (the fine Hungarian bass-baritone Miklós Sebestyén) we were treated from the start with two forceful, endlessly impressive, singers, both possessed of a fine stage presence and both bringing striking authority to these two major roles. The orchestra, under Ukrainian-born Andriy Yurkevych, recently appointed Music Director at the Teatr-Wielki in Warsaw, was already producing nuggets of detail: flute and staccato clarinet launching what proved a musically satisfying evening both in solo work and in largescale climaxes. 

While Macbeth and Banquo are musing with different reactions on the Witches’ claims, the first full aria – and indeed others throughout the opera – is reserved for Lady Macbeth. Miriam Murphy is a substantial lady of, shall we say, stout determination. Spreading liberally across the (deliberately bare) stage, she took a little getting used to. But vocally she brought a lot of drama. ‘Come, make haste’ established her strong personality; sadly she too was infected with foolish hand gestures. What can that talented director, Oliver Mears, who has worked wonders for Northern Ireland Opera and for Nevill Holt in the Midlands, have been thinking of? Or did we owe this futility to WNO’s Choreographer, Anna Morrissey?

The modified dagger speech was convincingly delivered by Cansino, though even his moves and gestures seemed a mite tame, and the dramatic interplay with his wife inept also. Even her ‘Give me the dagger’ and subsequent exit looked unplanned. There was more, for when Macduff and Banquo enter at rear (remember, the Porter scene has been cut), another key dramatic moment, they simply coasted down on to the stage; and even worse, when Macduff (the fine tenor Bruce Sledge) returns from the bloody scene (‘Orrore!) his entry was hopelessly weak. A sextet, movingly sung by all, was convincingly sung, but their coordinated hands on hearts gesture looked merely pathetic. Thank heavens the big chorus of lament that follows was musically superb. Lady Macbeth’s collapse front of curtain and then simply scuttling off indicates the kind of dramatic feebleness that dominated the first half.

Lady Macbeth redeemed events with a superb slow aria, which Verdi introduced in the 1865 version, ‘The light fades’ (‘La luce langue’): here and in whatbanquo follows Miriam Murphy revealed one of her strong suits: she can sing beautifully piano or pianissimo (as in Piave’s ominous ‘The dead have no wish to rule’). Banquo has a magnificent aria, finely delivered, before the assassins close in on him and the nicely played, fortunately elusive young Fleance (Tomi Llewelyn). What I dub Verdi’s oompah style accompanies the ghost’s appearance. But both Lady Macbeth (initially welcoming the guests) and Macbeth (after Banquo’s second appearance) have worthwhile arias, or semi-arias, each splendidly sung.

Hungarian bass-baritone Miklós Sebestyén as Banquo

The Witches, by the light of a massive harvest moon, are still uncoordinated, but the Act 3 scene is enhanced by some bracing Magic Flute-like chords as they summon up the apparitions (‘Apparite’), a sequence further improved by Verdi’s effective woodwind writing. There was some footling business with coats or fur coats, but Macbeth’s reaction to this parade of kings was magnificent, and Mears added a nice touch by having the dead Duncan appear (like Fleance, in blue serge) at the end of the line, at a point where Verdi almost mockingly deploys a piccolo.

Macbeth’s threat to the Macduff family is another fine piece of writing, and Cansino delivered it with a real nastiness.

 

A kind of Nabucco chorus of lament, one of the 1865 additions, and a stage bestrewn with dead bodies caught the feeling of physical and moral decline admirably. This chorus was one of the finest efforts from the famously fine WNO choir - whose use in Macbeth by Piave is perhaps not as ample as it might have been.

We do not see the massacre of the Macduff family, but we feel it, for Macduff himself sings a great aria of desolation, over arpeggioing clarinet, to which Sledge brought a fabulous grief and intensity. It’s one of the opera’s star moments, and its beauty brought the house down.

Piave gives us a moving sleepwalking scene, to which Murphy, abetted by falling oboe, brought a real pathos. Mears’ direction here, with maid and doctor (Martin Lloyd) in attendance, was excellent; he introduced just as much stillness and movement as this famous scene required. It is when Macbeth, following her death, is alone and forlorn that Piave introduces some of his best material, part trimmed, part invented. In Cansino’s hands, recitative and aria alike were quite superb: ‘Nor may you expect kind words on your tombstone’… ‘Nothing but curses shall be your elegy’.

Even more than Shakespeare’s, this Macbeth has given up even before Birnam Wood advances and Macduff reveals his origin.  

Indeed everything about this second half (Acts 3 and 4) was an uplift on what preceded. The soldiers’ chorus interjected here gave the WNO male chorus yet another chance to excel: the sound is really exciting, and really bracing. The fight between Macbeth and Macduff was absolutely ghastly – pathetic, weakly plotted, unclear. But when the expiring king allows himself a few words of repentance, with attendant brass, the impact was palpable.

The one good idea is when the blue-clad boy finishes him off by cutting his throat. Fleance, and the future, have won. Arresting as it is, it exemplifies the kind of idea this production should have been full of (think of Phyllida Lloyd’s brilliant conceits at Covent Garden). With Mears poised – deservedly - to go to the Royal Opera House himself, a pity that this should not live up to that.

Roderic Dunnett

09-11-16 

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