Thursday, 20 December 2018

Verdi - Macbeth (Venice, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

La Fenice, Venice - 2018

Myung-Whun Chung, Damiano Michieletto, Luca Salsi, Simon Lim, Vittoria Yeo, Elisabetta Martorana, Stefano Secco, Marcello Nardis

Culturebox - 27 November 2018

It goes without saying that director Damiano Michieletto tries his utmost to avoid anything like the familiar in his production of Verdi's Macbeth for the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, trying to put aside over-used imagery (from the drama and opera alike) in order to bring out some of the deeper in terms of psychological motivations, certainly a little more deeper than Verdi actually does. Going back to the original source in Shakespeare, Michieletto focusses on the bonds and dark undercurrents that lie in the relationship between Macbeth and his wife as the key that brings all the elements of horror and nightmare together.

Most of these things are unspoken and only hinted at, giving them an even deeper air of dark despair, and to some extent that tone can be found in Verdi's overture for Macbeth. Michieletto uses that music to draw out the idea of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth having lost a child, a bereavement that draws them together to some extent in shared grief, but also casts a dark pall over their lives or a void that can't be filled with their love for each other. Something darker has crept into their souls. An empty swing, a pit in the ground, a balloon that floats out of it fits the mournful overture and becomes a musical and visual theme that carries throughout the work.

The theme carries through to the early appearance of the three witches, each of the three part chorus represented by a child in a red dress (who come into play again later in the dream visitations), and a similar red dress is taken out of a child's toy locker by Lady Macbeth just before 'Vieni t'affretta!' All of this not only suggests a dark episode in their past, it also accounts for why Macbeth and his wife have further reason to fear Banquo and his progeny usurping not just the crown, but the line of their existence into the future. Their mortality is much more fearful to them, their brief existence famously viewed as nothing more than 'a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing'.

Such imagery abounds and the psychological underpinning works better than any literal depiction, but it is perhaps over-emphasised somewhat in the absence of any other real ideas in Michieletto's production. As far as darkness and horror goes, it's fairly bloodless. Literally bloodless even. Predominately black and white, with red reserved only for imagery associated with their dead child, Macbeth comes back from killing Duncan his dark shirt stained white. Lady Macbeth of course goes back to finish the grim murder that doesn't leave dark immovable blood stains on her hands, but rather white chalky paint up to her elbows.

This, along with plastic sheets, becomes the symbol of death in the production. Whether it's Cawdor at the start, Duncan and Banquo later or Macduff's murdered family, they end up wrapped in plastic sheets, with white paint poured over them. Plastic sheets in fact feature heavily in the absence of any props or sets other than side column of white tubed lighting, and the stage designer Paolo Fantin finds a hundred and one ways to use them; as a veil between the living and the dead, as a thin membrane between sanity and madness, a billowing protective barrier that shows disturbance to reality and order.

Bloodless it might be, but unfortunately, bloodless is also how you might describe the performance of Vittoria Yeo, this production's Lady Macbeth. No-one under-estimates how challenging this role is, but you need the right kind of voice for a Verdi soprano. Yeo can attack the high notes with ferocity but her voice is too thin for the role and she struggles to hold the line. The other performances are good, but capable more than exceptional. Luca Salsi brings a sympathetic lyricism to a Macbeth who looks permanently bewildered and in over his head, never in control of his actions and later not even his mind. Simon Lim's Banquo is good and Stefano Secco makes a good impression as Macduff.

Whether there's enough here for Michieletto to achieve the desired psychological qualities and depth is debatable; the performances aren't enough to bring the extra dimension needed in the face of rather limited symbols and themes that are inevitably overused and tend to lose their impact. The critical scenes however do hit home where they should, from Banquo's ghost scene, where he carries a skeleton (drenched in white paint, wrapped in plastic) is effective during the dinner scene. Macbeth's ambitions being at the mercy of his sanity through his child's bereavement is effectively represented by the crown descending on a child's swing. 'Patria oppressa' is not the usual rag-tag bunch of refugees but a people gathered in mourning dress for the funeral of Macduff's murdered family, a scene that adds an extra poignancy to Secco's performance of 'Ah, la paterna mano'.

Musically it could do with a little more of a punch, but Myung-Whun Chung goes for a more fluid account of the opera's strong melodic core and dramatic underscoring that emphasises why this one particular Verdi opera has lately been reassessed, more frequently performed and often found deserving. Having immersed myself in all flavours of Verdi this month (Aida, Otello, Attila, Simon Boccanegra and Macbeth back to back) and seen an excellent Il Corsaro earlier this year, it's clear that Verdi has by no means fallen out of favour and that a wide variety of his works continue to be an important part of the repertoire of all the major opera houses, but it's also evident that contrary to popular belief even those earlier works and flawed later works can still reveal new qualities and unexpected depths.

Links: Teatro La Fenice, Culturebox