Is this really a new production of Verdi's Macbeth that I see before me? Well, not exactly new. Phyllida Lloyd's staging, designed by Anthony Ward, was first seen in Paris in 1998 after failing to materialise at the Royal Opera in 1997. There were, of course, technical reasons for that, not least among them the curse of the Scottish play. But anyway, here it is at last, the unfulfilled prophecy come to pass, and for all the niggling air of staleness – more that of a first revival than a first night – Lloyd and Ward, together with their lighting designer Paule Constable, do at least convey a strong visual sense of the play's key elements: blood, sweat, tears and a stifling gloom. A shaft of light through an open door is the dagger with which Macbeth imagines he will murder sleep. Even he looks like an apparition.
Not that the play's quite the thing. Verdi's take on it isn't quite up there with the Reduced Shakespeare Company, but it's well on the way. Italian patriotism intrudes, of course, the Macbeths' dispossessed people playing to the gallery with an anthem that's all but a cover version of Nabucco's "Va, pensiero". The Royal Opera Chorus do it proud, shading subtly and unanimously. Paradoxically, this least Shakespearian moment brings one of the most striking images in the whole production. In a slick transition from the apparitions of act three, where Verdi's ballet music underscores an idyllic domestic scene in which the Macbeths are blessed with many children, their marital bed is symbolically rent apart, marooning them in the midst of a sea of refugees. The cost of their ruthless ambition: infertility, as husband and wife, as king and queen.
Lloyd is good at representing the big ideas on stage. The witches, depicted (somewhat uncomfortably) as a mystic eastern sect in black robes and orange turbans, are conspicuously proactive in the drama. Macbeth's letter to his wife, for instance, is hand-delivered by one of their number. They are complicit in the escape of Banquo's son Fleance. Then the issue of kingship, paraded like a glittering prize. Duncan arrives in gold chain mail on a gold-armoured horse, but he is encased like a precious exhibit; somehow untouchable. After his murder, the crown sits in its own protective case. Macbeth may wear it, but it was never truly his to wear. An uglier exhibit is the murder itself – the mutilated corpse on a bloodied bed for all of us to see.
That moment brings a searing chorus of outrage, as unexpected as it is thrilling. Simone Young gave it some clout, the chorus again coming up trumps. It was a good night for them – and for Young. This is some of the best work that I have heard from her. Rhythmic impulse – so vital in these early Verdi scores – was keen, but so too were all the mysterious instrumental shadings that so often pass us by. The strange, distant music of the apparition of kings in act three was beautifully complemented by their slow-motion appearance on more gold-armoured horses. Visually, aurally haunting.
The singing was rather cruder. Maria Guleghina lit the blue touch paper with her opening aria and one was well advised to take cover. The trouble with a big, pushed voice like this is that style gets sacrificed to excitement. Guleghina can dominate but she can't finesse. Manoeuvring her rather cumbersome instrument is at best effortful. She got away with "La luce langue" and the sleepwalking scene, but only just. Anthony Michaels-Moore, somewhat diminished by her hefty presence, was best when resolute, less affecting when lyrically challenged. Alastair Miles was a solid Banquo, Will Hartmann a decent enough Macduff.
Double, double... but not quite worth the toil and trouble.
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