OPERA / Will the three ever meet again?: Stephen Walsh reviews the Welsh National Opera's English-language production of Macbeth in Cardiff

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The Independent Culture
Having ended their last BP Opera Circuit tour in Cardiff's relatively capacious Sherman Theatre, Welsh National Opera this time decided to start there, with Malcolm Hunter's new English-language production of Verdi's Macbeth in a 'pocket' reduction by Hunter and the conductor, David Seaman. The effect is rather like that of running the first circuit of a marathon in the Olympic stadium; it shows us the runners, but gives little idea of the point of the exercise. Performances are now happening in miners' institutes, memorial halls, and tiny (as well as not so tiny) municipal theatres, and in the end the production's success will be judged by its effect on audiences who have little access to full-scale opera except on complicatedly organised annual outings.

Even so, I can't help feeling that the 'austerity' aspect has been overdone. David Seaman has reduced Verdi's score in, so to speak, both planes: vertically, by rewriting it for a frankly ridiculous ensemble of viola, cello, flute, oboe, trumpet and harp; horizontally, by cutting all music that can't usefully be adapted for solo voice, of which the production sports only five. So out go two of the witches (replaced by mimes) along with their supporting chorus, out go the murderers (Banquo dispatched by Macbeth himself - a nice footnote to the jobs crisis in South Wales), out go the refugees, and out, naturally enough, goes the ballet. What's left is presented (by designer Michael Spencer) in truly Scottish gloom on a practically bare stage. The few props might have been pinched from a giant Cluedo set, with a sliding, curtained screen to gobble them up when they're no longer needed.

It may all sound quite fun in a homely way. But the truth is that early Verdi thrives on precisely the elements that this show dispenses with: thumping orchestration, sweeping movement, a crowded stage. Seaman's rescoring is resourceful, but it barely fills the spaces between the notes, and too often sounds like a pier band suffering from a flu epidemic. That sense of dark melodrama which came so readily to Verdi is largely, if not entirely, dissipated.

We're left, however, with some excellent singing. Maria Moll (coming in at short notice) is a well-focused, if not over-intense, Lady Macbeth, while Phillip Joll lumbers around affectingly as Macbeth - appreciating, one feels, not having to force his tone into a large auditorium. Michael Pearson is a fine, youthful (and apparently childless) Banquo. But almost the best singing of all is by the Macduff, Geraint Dodd, in his lament for his own children - a piece of unlooked-for and melancholy topicality. Susan Parry performs cleverly as the one singing witch. Whether these strong castings can finally justify the show's more marginal aspects will be for Pontyberem, Blackwood, and other places to decide.

Welsh National Opera perform Verdi's 'Macbeth' tomorrow at Pontyberem Memorial Hall; then on tour throughout Wales (information: 0222 464666)