Macbeth, Royal Opera House, London

Verdi still proves beyond the Kirov
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The Independent Culture

An empty stage. It was as if all evidence of the Kirov's shambolic staging of Un ballo in maschera had been swept away. The relief was palpable. It was now down to David McVicar, to salvage some dignity from a disastrous start to this ill-advised Verdi season. He, at least, hails from the right part of the world to know a thing or two about the Scottish play, before and after Verdi. Though even he seemed to lose heart by the time Birnam Wood did finally come to Dunsinane.

But to begin, an empty stage, a void, right through to the black stone walls of Macbeth's castle. The blasted heath of his ambition flooded with white light, as if lightning had been suspended in a single millisecond of time. Beneath the stage lay the imagined steamy underworld of his ambition. The Weird Sisters emerged through traps in the stage; Duncan's murder happened belowstairs. Above ground, it was a barren landscape, history waiting to happen. Two lifeless bodies hung in the distance, a portent of the legacy of Macbeth's ambition. The only other scenic suggestion (from designer Tanya MacMillan) was a huge metal sheet that slowly descended, bisecting the interior scenes like the blade of a guillotine.

It couldn't have been simpler or more theatrical. David Cunningham's lighting dealt in washes of brutal white light and shadow. The Weird Sisters circled MacMillan's empty arena, pointing accusingly. Entrances and exits were heightened by the huge distances covered. In one thrilling moment – the opening of act four – an entire commun-ity, the dispossessed of Macbeth's tyranny, gathered upstage to ad-vance with their great exile lament "Patria oppressa" – the most telling addition to Verdi's 1865 revision.

But such stark primitivism means little or nothing, if the spirit of the drama is not realised in the performances. It's only exciting to have the Macbeths marooned in this huge space if they somehow fill it or are rendered vulnerable by it. So one's heart sank to see that the two principals who had proved such a disappointment in Ballo were husband and wife once more. Olga Sergeeva, striking in red wig and black Elizabethan frock, at least seemed more of a presence in the fiery coloratura of Lady Macbeth's music. But she, like all the principals here, needs to learn to project the drama through the musical line. A manic laugh pasted on to her "letter" aria definitely won't do it if the surrounding coloratura is un-rhythmic, if the articulation is occ-luded by unruly vibrato. And this voice loses interest when it's not whacking out the big top notes. The middle range and dynamics are poorly supported and projected. The sound keeps disappearing, because it is not sustained through to the finish of each phrase. There you have it: the essence of legato, mainstay of the Italian style. It seems to be a real problem for these singers, schooled as they are in a more declamatory, narrative style.

Sergei Murzaev's Macbeth barked his way through most of his music, including the great final act aria. He, too, was often inaudible, swallowing crucial words and music. His singing was frankly boring. Valery Gergiev didn't help. Flashes of brilliance momentarily raised the temperature (the wild "witches' sabbath" introduction to act three), but he has a lot to learn about how Verdi's accompagnati work, how it ignites the cabalettas and lends both foundation and urgency to the musical drama.

And in a company famous for its seemingly inexhaustible supply of talent, how come the smaller parts were so inadequately filled? The Kirov needs to bring out its best voices – and fast.

The Kirov Opera is at the ROH until 21 July (020-7304 4000)

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