Saturday, 7 July 2018

Verdi - Macbeth (Berlin, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Staatsoper under den Linden, Berlin - 2018

Harry Kupfer, Daniel Barenboim, Anna Netrebko, Plácido Domingo, Kwangchul Youn, Evelin Novak, Fabio Sartori

ARTE Concert - 21 June 2018

There's definitely an air of a prestige event about the Berlin Staatsoper's star-studded summer spectacular Macbeth, but also in its live open air broadcast, a sense of it being an occasion that can be accessible to a wider audience. Macbeth's recent elevation to becoming one of his most popular operas is deserved, and certainly among the best of the composer's earlier works. As such it has all the requirements of a crowd-pleaser, a showcase for imaginative stage direction, impassioned musical direction and for superstar singing. Verdi, Macbeth, Shakespeare, Kupfer, Barenboim, Netrebko and Domingo; evidently you're in for a treat. While the Berlin production can't fail to impress, there's still a lingering sense that it's more of an event than great opera.

The early indications in the setting of Act I Scene 1 are that Kupfer's production isn't going to shy away from the darkness and the horror that lies at the heart of Macbeth. There are however different ways of presenting the nature of that horror and Shakespeare and Verdi have differences of emphasis on the nature of power and ambition in Macbeth. For Verdi, the centrepiece of the opera is 'Patria opressa', the consequences that the lust for power has on the ordinary people caught up in war. Should a director stick closer to Shakespeare's themes or Verdi's? Well, there's no reason why you can't do both.

Phyllida Lloyd's production of Macbeth for the Royal Opera House found several ways to make the consequences and the reality of the underlying struggles present on a stage littered with the bodies of the dead, and Harry Kupfer's production for Berlin, while it may be a little more elegantly staged, also immediately places us is a world of almost apocalyptic devastation. Thick plumes of smoke rise from explosions of flame and lightning rains down on the scene as Macbeth and Banquo appear in the aftermath of the battle that will determine the future kings of Scotland. The witches dressed in rags scurry around the bodies in the muddy battlefield rags, scavenging over the spoils of war; a scene that tells you all you need to know about what is ahead without any mystic prophesy.

The veteran stage director's sets the scene well and what follows is equally spectacular. Kupfer's current visual aesthetic is for blacks, greys and steely silver, with off-kilter angular background projections of elegant, slightly surreal landscapes, and it works well for the contrasts and tones of Macbeth. The cold luxury of the Macbeth household is in stark contrast to the devastation outside in the real world, but it also captures a sense of the nature of Lord and Lady Macbeth's pretensions and sense of their own importance and ambition to rise. Verdi's music for these scenes, and Lady Macbeth's aria 'Vieni t'affretta' tell you as much, and Kupfer reflects this well.

There's really not much else to say about Kupfer's directorial choices. The remainder of the opera takes place in a series of equally suitable settings that provide variety and yet maintain a consistent tone. Every scene makes an impact - whether it's the ambush of Banquo by the maw of a digger on a building site or Macbeth's apparitions taking place within the crater of an active volcano - even if it doesn't say anything deeper than that. It's not the most insightful reading of Macbeth, but then Verdi's abilities at this stage in his career are far from the level he would attain with his later Shakespeare adaptations of Otello and Falstaff. The sets and direction however present impressive visual effects that match the character of the entertaining and expertly played performances.

Entertaining and expertly played that is, but likewise not with any great insight or depth. Anna Netrebko stamps her authority on the role of Lady Macbeth right from 'Vieni t'affretta' in the second scene of Act I, and her mastery of her character and ability to express her nature has already been capably demonstrated. As you would expect, she demonstrates great technical ability and considerable personality but, whether it's just the influence of the direction and the occasion, the personality is more Netrebko than Lady Macbeth; her 'La luce langue' is a little mannered, with no real sense of evil, menace or engagement with the world around her.

Unfortunately, that lack of engagement might also be down to the casting of Plácido Domingo. It's possible that Macbeth might well have a trophy wife, but it doesn't help that during his mental breakdown - where there is no actual ghost on the stage in this production - he looks more like her doddery old father. There's no chemistry here at all between Netrebko and Domingo. There's also the fact that while Domingo can sing the role well enough he just isn't a baritone. In other roles and even in other Verdi roles it might not matter so much, but the necessary contrast, weight and lyricism that is needed for Macbeth just isn't there. The addition of 'Mal per me' (making the best of both versions) consequently lacks the impact of the more direct ending and in fact it falls rather flat.

The Berlin Staatsoper's Macbeth then is very much a mixed bag. Daniel Barenboim conducts a good account of the score that holds back on bombast and allows the pace, rhythm and melodies to find their own sense of menace and horror. If it feels a little too smooth for early Verdi, that's as much to do with the elegant production that looks lovely, but fails to really follow through on the gritty and bloody drama that the opening scene appeared to promise. It's perhaps churlish to find minor faults with Netrebko and Domingo, who both delivered professional and crowd-pleasing performances, but these was more of a sense of them being opera gala performances than related to true lyric drama.

Links: Berlin Staatsoper, ARTE Concert, YouTube