Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Verdi - Macbeth (Buxton, 2017)

Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth (Buxton, 2017)

Buxton International Festival, 2017

Stephen Barlow, Elijah Moshinsky, Stephen Gadd, Kate Ladner, Oleg Tsibulko, Jung Soo Yun, Luke Sinclair, Ben Thapa, Helen Bailey, Charlie Lambert, Richard Moore, Molly O’Neill, Stuart Orme, Phil Wilcox

Buxton Opera House - 18th July 2017

There have been some fine productions in recent years that have raised Macbeth out of the obscurity of early Verdi operas up to a new level of appreciation. If the composer's early Shakespeare adaptation is still flawed in some respects and certainly not an opera that can ever be considered to be up there with his best work, Macbeth now at least has a deserved place in the Verdi popular repertoire.

Much of course depends on which version of the work is used and how it is presented, but with their latest Verdi venture for the Buxton Festival, Elijah Moshinsky and conductor Stephen Barlow believe that there is a case for viewing the earliest 1847 version without any of the composer's later revisions a little more sympathetically for its own operatic qualities, if not for its adherence to the Shakespearean drama. The Buxton production doesn't set out to make the case for the 1847 version being the definitive Macbeth, but rather just that it works on its own terms. They do that successfully but it seems to me to be a rather minor point to make when the work has the potential to offer so much more.

Other productions, perhaps identifying the weaknesses in the work as it stands in its various versions, can seek to reintroduce more Shakespeare into the opera or play with a hybrid that draws on the best of all versions to try to compensate for what is lacking in the dramatic development of the original opera version. Elijah Moshinsky's production for Buxton however plays it more or less straight. It's an abstraction really of Macbeth with no interpretation applied. There's no Scottish context or imagery, there are no elaborations of character or personality and no attempt to apply a dramatic through-line; one scene follows the next, condensing Shakespeare's play down to its essence.

That is more or less what Verdi and Piave do with Shakespeare in Macbeth anyway, so Moshinsky is really just removing anything that might be considered an interpretation or interpolation and just putting the focus back on Verdi's score and its ability to tell the story musically in its own way. Certainly Stephen Barlow's conducting of the NCO Festival Orchestra carried all the dynamism of the dramatic power and the melody of Verdi's arrangements, which are wonderfully effective no matter that they may not be as accomplished or as sophisticated in their characterisation as later Verdi. On its own terms the music delivers. Point proved.

Other than that however the Buxton Macbeth had little to offer in terms of interpretation to highlight themes or expand on aspects of characterisation. On a minimally dressed set that made use of a few benches against a background of castle walls, it was left mostly to the lighting, colour and shadow to actually visualise the colour of the effects of Verdi's score, principally in red and black. Some projections were also sparingly used to add emphasis to the punchier scenes of witchcraft, magic and murder most foul.

The use of projections in the scene of the visitation of the three apparitions conjured by the witches is the one place where the otherwise literal production goes a little off-script. Rather than a long line of kings descended from Banquo crossing the stage, the projections show a more interiorised whirl of horrors, snakes, skulls and demons within Macbeth's mind. Another slight revision is he timing of the death of the Queen, the production giving Macbeth's aria 'Pietà, rispetto, amore' as a lament to the corpse of Lady Macbeth rather than the customary distracted indifference, with the women rushing on scene to announce her death as if just discovering it.

This kind of emotional investment, sung well in this instance by Stephen Gadd, showed how well the work responds to the application of some tweaks of interpretation. Elsewhere such moments were uneven, the 1847 version of 'Patria opressa' lacks the stirring impact of its revised arrangement, but it wasn't helped with a straight line-up of the chorus across the stage with no dramatic direction. By way of contrast, Macduff's lament 'Ah, la paterna mano' that follows it carries the nature of the personal cost to the people of the land under Macbeth's reign of terror much more effectively, particularly as it was sung with great feeling by Jung Soo Yun.

Indeed The production might not have made the case for the 1847 original so well were it not for the singing. Proving again that the real key to the success of any early Verdi opera is often in how well the principal roles are able to meet its singing challenges, Stephen Gadd and Kate Ladner both gave convincing performances as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, although inevitably they were pushed a little uncomfortably to their limits in places. Stephen Gadd's softer intoning carried the gravitas of the role well, fitting with the more sombre tone of the production. Having a strong Banquo in Oleg Tsibulko also helped maintain a good balance in the overall tone. All of which contributed to an authentic early Verdi experience, but really not much more than that. I can't say I'm optimistic that such an approach will do much to improve the reputation of Alzira planned for next year's Festival either.

Links: Buxton International Festival