Giuseppe 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
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.
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?
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.