Opera: The return of the king

VERDI TOOK 30-plus curtain calls at the 1847 Florence premiere of Macbeth. It's easy to see why. Events cascade with lightning speed. Macbeth and his lady understand each other instinctively. They evince few qualms. Carnage flows as night follows day: "What's done is done." Later, as the pace eases, the psychology intensifies, climaxing in the magnificent sleepwalking scene and Macbeth's soured realisation that what awaits him is revilement and oblivion. It is the exiles, lamenting their "wretched country" who will restore the light.

Literally so, for in Robert Chevara's production for English touring Opera - now celebrating its 20th season of imaginative, quality productions in medium-size venues - a brooding backdrop yields to a spa-like view of the Scottish mountains, as if to exorcise a nightmare. And so, indeed, it does. Throughout Act II, Anthony Marber's lean-visaged Macbeth grows in stature - first in a lucid, gripping husband-wife exchange of recitative, and later in the graphic Banquet scene, where Banquo's Commendatore-like ghost gorily makes to embrace his killer. Soon he is curled in the Witches' embrace as, to Verdi's marvellously mocking low woodwind, Marber observes (through the audience) the parade of Banquo's descendants.

We know one of them: Fleance. His framing, backstage, is one of several moments when a spikily lit rear entrance is capitalised on to striking effect: that way lies Duncan's chamber; it is filled, ghoulishly, by Banquo's spectre; and from here Sarah Rhodes's icy Lady Macbeth sidles for her awesome first aria ("Join me, husband") and shivering cabaletta ("Ye furies of darkness"). Andrew Porter's translation continually serves the production well.

This Macbeth owed much not just to Chevara's keen eye for grouping, but to Dinah Collin's costuming and shrewd shadow-lighting from the inspired Giuseppe di Iorio. Curiously, less so in a slightly disparate Act I: the witches' scene lacked punch, and some greens and reds seemed faintly hack.

But things soon lifted. Banquo (Henry Waddington) was a dominating bass presence: notably his Act II aria ("See where the moon"), with beguiling murderers' chorus preceding. Rhodes's Lady Macbeth, whose "This day" aria was the highpoint of Act I, delivered a breathtaking sleepwalk aria. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts brought superb voice and focused acting and pathos to Macduff. There were attractive vignettes from Eldrydd Cynan-Jones (Lady- in-Waiting) and Justin Miles Olden (Malcolm). Di Iorio's artfully varied lighting and Chevara's gift for compact blocking (witches, murderers, and skilful Act I and II finales), at their best, held one mesmerised.

The ensemble soared to some massive Verdian climaxes, and the orchestra, from strings to snickering flute to a blazing brass, repeatedly delivered for the music director, Andrew Greenwood. This Macbeth is almost ripe; once matured, it could be superb.

Roderic Dunnett

ETO's `Macbeth' and `The Daughter of the Regiment' tour until 5 June