It is easy to forget that what we now call grand opera was once popular entertainment. Imagine, if you will, a 19th-century audience for Verdi's Macbeth. See the viscounts. See the countesses. See the industrial magnates. Now see the valets and clerks, and the milliners and seamstresses. How flabbergasted Verdi would be to discover that his operas have since come to be perceived as an elite pursuit.
If Holland Park Opera is anything to go by, it is possible to change this perception. No one enjoys attending the type of venue where you sense a silent calculation of the cost of your clothes, or are made to feel awkward for eating your interval picnic from a carrier bag. Perhaps because of its setting, HPO has none of this. The atmosphere at the first night of Olivia Fuchs's production of Macbeth was antithetical to the froideur of the picnic circuit norm. Buffeted by fair sunshine and foul winds, with a small orchestra and close seating, there was instead a sense of authentic, inclusive excitement.
The production is dominated by Bob Bailey's striking designs: two cage-like structures that serve as corridors and ante-rooms, a font full of gore, and a vast white-washed wall that stretches across the stage, revealing its arterial red undercoat in spatters and smears as the murder spree gains momentum. Fuchs's direction has similar boldness and simplicity, though the kabuki-lite hand-movements of her witches - who are dressed in the style of Madonna circa 1985 - dilute the impact of her use of space.
The Scottish Play makes a remarkably persuasive Italian Opera.
Shakespeareans may bridle at the lack of poetic nuance, but Verdi tells the story on his own terms. The score is as tight as the soundtrack to a Bugs Bunny cartoon, which, at its jauntiest, it resembles. Bizarre as it is to be tapping one's toes to a tragedy, there is not one wasted note or missed opportunity for misty tremulandi, urgent oboes, sinister clarinets, and mordant bassoons.
With the exception of Macbeth himself, there is scant ambiguity in Verdi's characters. Fuchs does not impose an exogenous sub-text but identifies each stage of their moral disintegration. Childlessness, a common mitigation for the couple's murderous ambition in contemporary productions, scarcely registers here, and Macbeth (Olafur Sigurdarson) and Lady Macbeth (Miriam Murphy) clearly enjoy each other's company. When not nuzzling Murphy's neck like a gun-dog at a bowl of Winalot, Sigurdarson appears to be trying to guess the weight of her breasts: squeezing, kneading, lifting, separating, and, at one point, thrumming his fingers over them like a timpanist checking his intonation.
Though slightly compressed of tone, Sigurdarson acts the tortured anti-hero very well. Murphy, meanwhile, does some spectacular eye-flashing. She has the makings of a fine Lady Macbeth but is a bit of a belter, which is a shame because her voice, when singing softly, has a pleasing spinto gleam. With Mark Beesley under the weather as Banco, Leonardo Capalbo's Macduff is the most polished vocal performance. His growing disenchantment with Macbeth is carefully charted and his rendition of Ah, la paterna mano - sensitively accompanied by conductor John Gibbons and the City of London Sinfonia - is electrifying.
For all the hand-jiving and heavy-petting, Macbeth is a dynamic start to this year's season. HPO have raised their production standards considerably and are feeling the benefit of replacing the Royal Philharmonic with the City of London Sinfonia. More heartening still is the continuing diversity of their audience. For those put off by the incidental trappings of country house opera, HPO is an unpretentious alternative.
Maybe you won't see the peerless perfection that makes die-hard opera-lovers scrimp and save for Glyndebourne. But you're more likely to be bitten by the bug in Holland Park.
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