Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth (Vienna)
Wiener Staatsoper, 2015
Alain Altinoglu, Christian Räth, George Petean, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Tatiana Serjan, Jorge de Leon, Donna Ellen, Jinxu Xiahou, Jongmin Park
Live at Home - 13 October 2015
A new production of Verdi's Macbeth is always something to look forward to, the work now firmly established in the canon of the composer's most popular works. The opera doesn't have all of the poetry and character of the Shakespeare, but it has much of the drama with the addition of Verdi lending his developing dramatic music skills to a subject of great force, gravity and poignancy - even if it's still not quite Shakespeare. Unfortunately, the new 2015 Vienna production directed by Christian Räth isn't quite Shakespeare either.
There is of course room to place Macbeth in a modern setting, in the theatre as much as in the opera house. The themes of the work are larger than any period historical setting, but the problem is that Christian Räth doesn't really latch on to any of those themes as a means of bringing Shakespeare back into the music-drama. The Vienna Macbeth is unfortunately one of those productions that only makes a token gesture towards modernity, mixing and matching, without committing to any one look or having any new angle to place on the themes.
That means that adhering strictly to instead of a Scottish theme, Macbeth's rule is shown in terms of being a military junta, with generalissimo uniforms that you would find in the South American dictatorships of Galtieri or Pinochet. Lady Macbeth however wears a tartan outfit during the banquet scene, so you get the best of both worlds with some recognition of the nature of Macbeth's regime. That is also reflected in the set designs, the soft lighting of a modern luxury bedroom set in the greater confines of what looks like a huge concrete bunker.
There's a good contrast there that does hint at the nature of Macbeth's fear of the constant threat of being deposed, and the stage design remains consistent with this kind of imagery in the secret police that hunt down Banquo in a political purge. It's all dark and threatening and it looks great - the nightmare vision of the reality effectively spilling over in Macbeth's bedroom visitation of swarms of witches and lines of Macduff's descendants. It illustrates the drama exceptionally well, but it perhaps over-literal (even down to depicting the ghost of Banquo as a shadow), never exploring it for any insights. It's faithful to Verdi at least, if not to Shakespeare.
It's perhaps a bit much to expect the director to bring anything more to the work than Verdi did himself. It's a wonderful score, filled with all the force and darkness of the drama, but it doesn't have the depth of characterisation that Verdi would be able to apply to his later Shakespeare adaptations of Otello and Falstaff. Alain Altinoglu, at least, isn't able to find any wider dynamic or subtlety within the musical arrangements. He certainly directs a punchy performance from the Vienna Orchestra that crashes impressively in the big dramatic moments, but it flows a little too smoothly elsewhere without finding the aching Romanticism that might be a valid approach to Verdi's interpretation of the material.
What makes the production more than just serviceable is - as it often is at the Vienna State Opera - the high standard of the singing. I'm going to go right in there first with the tremendous performance by Tatiana Serjan as Lady Macbeth. Really, the opera just won't work as it should without a singer of huge ability and personality in this role, and Serjan provides plenty of that. It's a fearless performance that attacks the challenges with gusto and plenty of fireworks. George Petean's Macbeth is also good, sung well but without any real distinction in the performance or delivery. Ghostly scene-stealing aside, Banquo is not one of Verdi's major bass roles, but typically Ferruccio Furlanetto sonorous tones bring real personality to the character and sympathy for his fate. With Jorge de Leon proving to be a classic Verdi dramatic tenor as Macduff and great choral work, the Vienna State Opera again remind us where the greatness of Verdi lies, and why Macbeth is one of those operas worth maintaining in the repertoire.
Macbeth was broadcast live from the Vienna State Opera as part of their Live at Home programme. The next broadcasts are ANNA BOLENA on 23 October and DON GIOVANNI on 1 November. Details of how to view these productions live at home can be found in the links below.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video