A dramatic opera set in a dark place
There is no joy in the world of the Macbeths: no sense of love for family or nation. Just a deep-seated desire for power and domination. Verdi wrote to Antonio Somma, his librettist for Un ballo in maschera, in 1853, “I prefer Shakespeare to all other dramatists” by which point he had already finished composing Macbeth (1847, revised 1865) and continued to celebrate his respect for the Bard with Otello (1887) and his final masterwork, Falstaff (1893).
Currently, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and National Theatre (NT) have produced two new productions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth which, unfortunately, haven’t received the best reviews. That said, the Royal Opera House did a better job with Verdi’s opera, a reduced version of Shakespeare’s play, which was sung by the showstopping Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, as Lady M., and Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, performing the role of Macbeth.
Having seen the Covent Garden’s (ROH) production, a third revival directed by Daniel Dooner based off Phyllida Lloyd’s 2002 original direction, twice, I’m convinced Macbeth was worth every penny I spent to see the production again [April 4, 2018]. (My first viewing was on the opening night: March 25th, 2018.)
Anthony Ward’s set design is dark and almost bleak. The cast’s costumes were limited to red, black and gold, with an ancient tribe-like quality added to them. Other features on stage included large stage props, such as a life-size cage, to reinforce the isolating and ominous nature of Macbeth. Here Verdi’s momentous score and Shakespeare’s tragedy was portrayed through top quality voices and captivating musical performances by the soloists, chorus singers, maestro Antonio Pappano and the ROH orchestra.
The ROH chorus was glorious and in roaring form. Verdi’s opera requires more witches than Shakespeare’s play, hence why there were 35 female members of the chorus who sang brilliantly and wore red turbans, all-in-black dresses and Frida Kahlo unibrows. The male chorus singers also performed with gusto as the rebel army backing Macduff and Malcolm: the son of the assassinated King Duncan.
On both occasions Pappano and the ROH orchestra were fantastic. Pappano’s conducting is beyond compare when it comes to Verdi operas. On my second viewing, I noticed that the orchestra sounded a bit louder and a touch bolder than the first night. Perhaps they were more comfortable with the score, by then, just like Lučić who also seemed more at ease with his characterisation of Macbeth: a man fuelled by his moral conscience, at first, that eventually becomes an unstoppable force of corruption and conceit.
Lučić’s Macbeth appeared weak in the beginning; he depicted Macbeth as most vulnerable in Act 2 when he sees the ghost of Banquo, yet by the end Lučić turned Macbeth into an ultimate villain. His rendition of Pietà, rispetto, amore in the final act was tender and impressively sung, despite how malicious he made Macbeth seem.
Netrebko delivered as the deeply ambitious wife of Macbeth. Her first aria on the opening night, Vieni! T’affretta!, brought the house down causing the audience to give her a praiseworthy applause. In fact, after every solo aria she sang she received a loud applause.
Netrebko is a strong soprano with a powerful voice. When she sang, there was a poignancy and gorgeousness in her voice which cannot be found in any other soprano. This is the main reason why tickets sold out fast for this production; whenever her name is added to a cast list, it’s virtually impossible to find available tickets, or returns. Netrebko evoked a ghoulish fraction of Shakespeare’s imagining when she sang Una macchia è qui tuttora! in the spine-tingling scene of Lady M. sleepwalking and dreaming she was washing blood off her murderous, guilty hands.
Singing with a rich rounded voice was bass baritone Ildebrando D’arcangelo. He was marvellous as Banquo. Azerbaijan tenor, Yusif Eyvazov, also Netrebko’s husband, did a superb job performing as Macduff, even though his role was small. He sang Ah, la paterna mano expressively which added a sentimental touch to his representation of Macduff. Also most notable, too, were American soprano Francesca Chiejina and South African bass Simon Shibambu from the ROH’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. Performing as Lady-in-waiting and Doctor to the Macbeths they both gave vocally inspiring performances which assured the audience they will see them again in leading opera roles in the not so distant future.
My only gripe with the production was the loud running tap on stage, which was a request from the director to evoke Shakespeare’s metaphor of guilt. Besides that, the production was absolutely world-class. It is the type of production that has set the bar for many Macbeth productions to come. The next question is, who can top Netrebko’s vocal prowess and stage presence as Lady Macbeth? Let’s face it: she’s a tough act to follow.
The Royal Opera House’s production of Macbeth has ended. For more information on operas and other performances showing now at the Royal Opera, please click here.