This week the Royal Opera House (ROH) ended its successful run of Verdi’s Macbeth. A terrified and guilt-stricken Lady M., performed by Anna Netrebko, left haunting memories behind including scenes of her sleepwalking and dreaming she was washing blood off her guilty hands. Now the Covent Garden’s backstage has filled its walls with Richard Jones’s 2004 production of Shostakovich’s first and last opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934.). From Banquo’s ghost to Boris Ismailov’s ghost it is no coincidence that Shostakovich’s opera presents many parallels between his version of Lady Macbeth and Shakespeare’s own.
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.
This post is divided into Part I and Part II.
Part I – My thoughts on Keith Warner’s production of Otello at the Covent Garden, 2017.
Part 2 – My thoughts on seeing the opera at the Covent Garden, then seeing it again for the cinema Encore.
Part I : Othello versus Otello.
Before I begin, I want to make something clear. Othello is the original theatrical marvel written by the Bard (Shakespeare) in 1601. Verdi’s own interpretation Otello came along after, which he composed with Arrigo Boito in 1887 after seeing a production of Shakespeare’s play in England, 1847. Despite the English playwright’s influence on Verdi’s masterwork sitting in the opera house being armed with information about Othello won’t heighten your opera experience much. For anyone who is a big Othello fan (me!), they will know that watching Otello should be treated as a different reading entirely. For example, compared to the original play, Desdemona and Emilia say a lot more and unfortunately their characters don’t get the chance to develop as much in the opera. For some reason, Verdi plays down Emilia’s realism. In act 3, scene 4 of the original text, Emilia says to Desdemona, ‘Tis not a year or two shows us a man: They are all stomachs, as we are all but food…’ Not a dime of this shiny humour or wittiness exists in Boito’s libretto. Secondly, the ending is very different. Justice is not served. Iago gets away with creating the chaotic bloodbath without getting his hands dirty. Perhaps this is one of the many reasons why Verdi originally wanted to call the opera ‘Iago’.
For the first time, our ‘dreamy’ tenor Jonas Kaufmann performs the lead role of Otello. This was, and still is, ‘the highly anticipated event’ of the year in the opera world. Known as Verdi’s most mature and highly orchestrated piece of work, composed during the final chapters of the composer’s life, the Royal Opera House has returned to the opera after 30 years’ absence with a superb cast sheet of performers including In Sung Sim (Lodovico), Marco Vratogna (Iago) Maria Agresta (Desdemona), Frederic Antoun (Cassio) and Kai Rüütel (Emilia).