CLASSICAL MUSIC / Imelda Macbeth turns catcalls to cheers

Michael White
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:01

WHEN English National Opera's Macbeth first appeared in 1990 it was generally regarded as a trick too far: the ne plus ultra of ENO house style, and the point at which the ideas of the Coliseum's governing regime had gone stale. So there is an appropriately ENO-esque note of defiance in the fact that it has been brought back to close the current season, after which the regime ends. When the curtain falls on 26 June (the last night, designated a 'farewell performance' for Messrs Jonas, Pountney and Elder) there will no doubt be a linking of arms and a chorus of 'I did it my way'.

But defiance may not be necessary. The audience response to Macbeth's opening on Thursday (its first revival) suggested that nostalgia has already begun to moisten the memory of the past. In 1990 there were catcalls. This time there were unadulterated cheers. And as one who deplored almost everything about David Pountney's staging (still more, Stefanos Lazaridis's designs) before, I have to say that even I feel more comfortable with it now. The idea of Macbeth as a story of suburban greed escalating into fantastic evil is strong and well projected by the vaguely 1940s totalitarian atmosphere that Pountney and Lazaridis create. Lady Macbeth as an Imelda Marcos figure holding court in silk pyjamas from her bedroom is a striking image. So is Duncan as an icon of death, embalmed into the likeness of a saintly corpse in an Italian church. As for Macbeth's henchmen plotting murder in a public lavatory and cross-dressing as women to effect the deed, the reversal of expected gender roles is part of the fabric of Macbeth; and you could argue that bare knees are no more or less dramatically effective under paisley print than under tartan.

But where all this comes to grief is its attempt to accommodate the supernatural. Pountney's essentially political stance has no interest in magic as a determining force in the plot, which is why the witches are robbed of seriousness and reduced to tweedy housewives en seance in Surbiton. But Shakespeare was interested in witches; and so was Verdi, whose revised Paris version of the score (used here in a new and commendably thorough edition) gives them a substantial ballet. The musical content is not exactly sinister, but it does have what mid-19th-century audiences would have understood as fantastical, other-worldly colouring - which Pountney squanders (along with much else) on some of the most embarrassing cliches of designer radicalism ever perpetrated at ENO. You see them and you see the point where house style has become self-parody.

As before, Mark Elder saves the situation with some brilliantly dramatic coups from the orchestra and, above all, the chorus, who deliver their big numbers with heart-stopping impact. But the level of intensity among the soloists is patchy. Kristine Ciesinski's thin-toned agility has the notes but not always the commanding stature of Lady Macbeth. Malcolm Donelly as her husband is off-form: unfocused, with a distortive beat in the voice. The heartening thing about the cast, though, is the debut of John Hudson, a tenor who sings Macduff with such conspicuous distinction that it becomes (contrary to the composer's wish) a major role. ENO has needed a capacious lyric/spinto tenor with a sense of theatre for a long while. Here, at last, he is.

Any librettist will tell you, probably with pleasure, that music has a slower wit than words. Music is an enlarging medium. It works through repetition and self-analysing structures that can't process ideas at the speed of speech. This is why Gilda takes so long to die, why Donna Elvira's hysteria is so disciplined, and why we have those moments in comic opera where the characters are so absorbed in singing their intentions that some intervening force has time to creep on stage and thwart them.

It follows that 10-minute operas are virtually a contradiction in terms, or at the very least a considerable packaging problem for the authors; and it was no surprise to find that the collection of (as advertised) '10-minute operas' playing at the Donmar Warehouse this week was nothing of the sort. More like 20 apiece. But it was still a fascinating exercise in how to tell a self-contained musical story against the clock, organised by ENO's Contemporary Opera Studio as part of its development programme for new writers.

Three special commissions were programmed alongside pre-existing scores by Gerald Barry and the late Stephen Oliver (the supreme exponent of miniature opera) and they proved how much harder it is to squeeze a serious narrative into short form than it is to offer something chicly whimsical (in the way of Judith Weir who, I see, was music adviser to the project). The young composer David Horne bit several bullets with a piece about child-murder that had sharp musical ideas but weak dramatic ones. Sally Beamish's Ease turned on a nice conceit about the relationship between life and art but didn't really make its point. Of the new works only Solid Assets by Colin Huehns (text by Meredith Oakes) chased the clock productively; and Solid Assets was only a step away from slapstick, with a tenor role that edged towards a parody of Peter Pears.

But standards of musicianship were high throughout, with the superb Brindisi Quartet among the instrumentalists; and if nothing else these pieces made a good showcase for Karl Morgan Daymond, an impressively smooth-voiced young baritone from Wales who has been taken up by WNO and sounds like a major talent in the making.

Moscow Chamber Opera, a legendary survivor of the Soviet arts underground, made its British debut at the Brighton Festival on Friday with The Rostov Mysteries - a music-theatre piece which justified its name in that it played in Old Russian, without translation or synopsis. No one, not even the Brighton Festival director, could explain exactly what was going on. But it was curiously compelling; and it ended on a note of righteous triumph as exhilarating as a feel-good movie. Basically it was a rustic folk nativity compiled by an Orthodox priest, Dmitry Rostovsky, in 1702. But in the edition presented here - pared down from a potential playing time of six hours - the nativity was not central.

The main character seemed to be Herod, whose story was woven into a complex fabric of ceremonial, processions, unaccompanied choral singing and sublime laments, and the sort of coarse-acting comic interludes without which no Russian lyric theatre is complete: a mix of high and low culture that would place the piece, in English terms, halfway between the Beggar's Opera and Noyes Fludde. Whether it deserves to be called the first Russian opera, displacing Glinka's Life for the Tsar (first performed in 1836), I'm not sure. But it presupposes operatic vocal qualities that were superbly realised by this Moscow company - a remarkable ensemble whose democratic ethos (no hierarchy of singers, no stars) seems to demand solo stature of everyone. And Russian folk angels, as envisaged by the MCO, look very like benign Wagnerian Valkyries.

'Macbeth' continues at the Coliseum Wed and Sat (071-836 3161).

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