Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Verdi - Macbeth (La Monnaie, 2016)

Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels 2016

Paolo Carignani, Olivier Fredj, Scott Hendricks, Carlo Colombara, Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Lies Vandewege, Andrew Richards, Julian Hubbard, Justin Hopkins, Gerard Lavalle, Jacques Does, Maria Portela Larisch, Boyan Delattre, Jules Besnard

ARTE Concert - September 2016

One thing you can say about productions at La Monnaie is that their stage designs are always impressively stylish. They never go for the straightforward or obvious locations, striving to find other ways to represent works in a bold, modern setting with unexpected concepts. It's also true however that they don't always fit perfectly and sometimes don't make a whole lot of sense, and that seems to be the case with their season opening production of Verdi's Macbeth. There may be some vague references made here to the upcoming US elections, but those are as vague and uncertain as the nature of what the future holds in store there.

Directed by Olivier Fredj, La Monnaie's Macbeth contains little overt reference to Scotland, and is instead set in a luxury hotel. I don't much fancy what they cook in the cauldrons down in the kitchen, but there are all kinds of schemes being cooked up in the hotel lobby as well. Lady Macbeth looks on at a couple nursing their baby there while she turns to her own dark ambitions on receiving Macbeth's letter of promotion. They will have no children of their own to leave with the fruits of their success, so why not make the most of the opportunities that are open to them and take what is ordained to be their due right now.

Macbeth's moment of decision is prompted by an omen. "Is this a dagger I see before me?" No, it's a piece of cutlery that has fallen off the room service trolley, but it's a good enough sign for Macbeth, and the ringing of a distant bell (on the reception desk) is all the invitation he needs to steel himself to kill the king, Duncan. Well, that and a bit of encouragement from his wife. The hotel locations are used in this way throughout and it's a natural place to have servants and maids in the present day, as well as a large banquet. It's also as good a place as any to show ambition, wealth and privilege, but problems with the purpose of the production go deeper than this.

The production at least retains a token suggestion of its original Scottish roots in the men's costumes. They don't quite go as far as wearing tartan kilts, but instead have a rather fashionable (in some circles I'm sure) powersuit with a long Alexander McQueen kind of overskirt. For her part, Lady Macbeth's style - particularly her hairstyle - becomes more noticeably more First Lady-like, with Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Regan references, settling in the end (somewhat randomly) for a deranged Queen Elizabeth I double-cornet red wig, which is of course dramatically removed during her downfall in Act IV. Macbeth's bouffant quiff and displays of wealth might be considered a reference to Donald Trump. If you want to however, the quotes of a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (which make it through from Shakespeare in a less poetic translation), are perhaps more eloquent on this point.

If the stage production is merely adequate for the purposes of the drama, with neither the direction nor Jean Lecointre's 'digital collage' projections really revealing any new insights or suggesting any real purpose, the singing and musical performance are unfortunately not quite up to the task of matching Verdi's thunderous sound and fury either. Scott Hendricks is surprisingly restrained and subdued in the performance of such a mighty role, not like himself at all. His singing is mostly fine and capable, but he doesn't always produce the most pleasant of sounds in the lower register. It was hard moreover to see any kind of character being established here - although part of the problem might be with Verdi - Macbeth here appearing to be confused and out of his depth the whole time.

There wasn't much to compensate in Béatrice Uria-Monzon taking on the role of Lady Macbeth. Uria-Monzon can be an explosive singer, but Lady Macbeth is not a role for a mezzo-soprano. Her 'La luce langue' just doesn't have the fireworks you would expect for the scene, and there's no sense of urgent over-reaching ambition or cool calculation in the performance. The direction never really permits much in the way of creating mood or atmosphere. 'Patria oppressa' works by taking the chorus out into the audience, but elsewhere they fall back on the now familiar theatrical device of being an audience seated at the back of the stage watching the action.

Paolo Carignani conducted Verdi's original 1847 version with a few revisions, which meant that we got the witches ballet in Act III and Macbeth's 'Mal per me' aria, as well as Lady Macbeth's 'La luce langue' from the '65 version. The compromise didn't lead to a particularly clear conclusion, with Macbeth vanishing after his aria and Malcolm reluctantly or warily approaching to take up his empty robe. Whether it was the performance or the recording, I don't know, but there was a lack of urgency to the musical arrangements. The melody was good, but it lacked rhythm, drive and dramatic engagement. This was a bit of a disappointing start to Carignani's tenure at La Monnaie.

Links: La Monnaie, ARTE Concert