Macbeth, Royal Opera House, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Terrible sounds of killing spree
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The Independent Culture

The opera of the Scottish play still bears his name, of course, but as Verdi is at pains to make even plainer than Shakespeare, it's her indoors that wears the trousers. For any soprano with the technique and, more importantly, the will to seize her many moments, this is Lady Macbeth's show.

Violeta Urmana is such a soprano. In what is perhaps surprisingly the first revival of Phyllida Lloyd's 2003 production, Urmana not only seized her moments but shook them around a little and hurled the carcasses to the back of the auditorium.

Vocally speaking she was exactly what Verdi must have had in mind when he spoke of "ugly sounds" being an integral part of the role's vocabulary. There's a touch of the blasted heath in these elemental vocal lines.

Indeed, the letter that launches Lady M's first tirade comes hand-delivered from that heath. Lloyd has one of the witches (about which more later) pluck it from Macbeth's hand and spirit it directly to his other half. Thus begins Verdi's reckless ride to the abyss.

Dressed in black, Urmana's Lady Macbeth clawed at the line, "the path to power is strewn with villainy", and with it vaulted ambitiously above the stave before plunging with equal resolve to octave-plus depths below it. The scarifying coloratura was all in a day's work. She was fearless and unlike some, sang every note of the aria's tigerish cabaletta.

Later, of course, came the sleepwalking scene - which is always a test. Could the same voice finesse its strange, distracted, eerily quiet phrases all the way up to that frightening D flat above high C at the close? It could, and did.

In the face of such show-stopping resolve Macbeth himself can seem a bit of an also-ran - all bark and no bite. Not so in Thomas Hampson's fiercely intelligent reading. One might have imagined that a role set so firmly in the verismo camp might not sit well with so lyric a voice. But Hampson pushes words not voice and in them finds a world of nuance beyond bluster and hyperventilation.

So the demonic duo dominate. It's a feature of Verdi's much-revised opera that all of Shakespeare's other characters are reduced to little more than obstacles on their radar. John Relyea's wonderfully gaunt Banquo won't go away, of course, and with a voice as darkly imposing as his, is it any wonder?

Then there is Macduff, little more than ensemble until his heartbreaking aria in act four. Joseph Calleja sang that with charismatic tenderness. The flutter in his voice is most affecting.

But the other leading player in Verdi's vision of Shakespeare comes in multiples of three - the witches. I'm still not quite sure what Phyllida Lloyd was striving for with her bevy of red-turbaned Norma Desmonds looking for all the world like they might be embarked upon some kind of occult field trip to the Middle East. But I like very much the way she makes them complicit in the storytelling. Like the moment where they fill the Macbeths' marital bed with the children they will never have - only to spirit them away and split the bed of iniquity permanently in two.

There are other telling touches. The standpipe that serves as a constant reminder of the blood that can never be washed away. The grey concrete bunker (designer Anthony Ward) whose lowering walls split to emit the blade of white light which is the dagger that Macbeth might or might not see before him. Or Lloyd's decision to display the bloody, semi-naked body of Duncan for all to see.

That shocking moment is accompanied by perhaps the most thrilling outburst of collective outrage and grief in all of Verdi. In his Royal Opera debut, the conductor Yakov Kreizberg urged the Royal Opera Chorus here and elsewhere to storming heights. In an account of the score full of fire and ice, angst and mystery, he made us understand afresh why Verdi loved this work so much.

In rep to 9 March (020-7304 4000)

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