Revival of Phyllida Lloyd’s Macbeth thrills audiences at Royal Opera House

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi Macbeth: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Antonio Pappano 24.5.2011. (CC)

Macbeth – Simon Keenlyside
Lady Macbeth – Liudmyla Monastyrska
Banquo – Raymond Aceto
Macduff – Dimitri Pittas
Duncan – Ian Lindsay
Lady in Waiting – Elisabeth Meister
Servant to Macbeth – Nigel Cliffe
Duncan – Ian Lindsay
Malcolm – Steven Ebel
Macduff – Dmitri Pittas
Fleance – Will Richardson
Assassin – Ole Zetterström
Apparitions – Jonathan Fisher, William Payne, Archie Buchanan
Doctor- Lukas Jablonski

Director – Phyllida Lloyd
Revival Director – Harry Fehr

Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth was first seen at Covent Garden in 2002. This, its second revival, is directed by Harry Fehr. Since its first airing there has been an Opus Arte DVD of the production from Barcelona’s Liceu (with Carlos Álvarez in the title role, with Maria Guleghina as Lady Macbeth and Roberto Scandiozzi as Banquo – the conductor is Bruno Campanella, OA0922 D ). Good though it is to have Lloyd’s take on the Scottish play filtered through the medium of film, her production really only triumphs live, where a sense of scale and the power of darkness prevail. Lloyd’s use of a giant golden cage is telling: power there may be, but it does nothing to alleviate the trapped nature of the main characters (the crown of Scotland is itself held in a smaller cage in the second act). Their fate is foretold by witches, and from that moment on there is no escape. It is not only darkness and claustrophobia that lies at the heart of Lloyd’s staging – there is also the sense that everything superfluous has been stripped away, leaving only blackness; this is particularly evident in the second act. Macbeth is, let us remember, Shakespeare’s shortest play, and his most concise. Intensity is all. Lloyd asks us to zoom in on this, and the effect is disconcerting, almost overwhelming. Also, the contrast between the private, psychological dramas of the Macbeths and that of outward kingly spectacle is tellingly made. The staging’s strength lies in that the images of each are equally strong and memorable, ensuring that it is the friction between these two extremes that provides the supporting fuel for Verdi’s operatic edifice.

Verdi’s witches are a whole chorus rather than Shakespeare’s more limited number. They intone the prophesies in unison, solemn and unflappable. Here, the ladies of the Royal Opera House Chorus were tremendous, exuding confidence and insight. In short, you, as listener, believed them.

The role of Lady Macbeth is replete with drama and there are several major arias that test the singer’s mettle. On the present occasion the role was taken by the Ukranian soprano Liudmyla  Monastyrska, who recently made her Royal Opera debut as  One could argue the opera is more hers than Macbeth’s, and Monastyrska thrilled from the very beginning, in her Act 1 Scene 2 “Vieni! t’affretta!”. Her Act 4 reliving of her husband’s atrocities (“Una macchia”) was one of the highlights of the evening – Monastyrska seemed completely inside the part. Whether sleepwalking or plotting, we lived each evil act through the channel of Monastyrska, as indeed we did her ensuing unravelling.

The Macbeth on this occasion was Simon Keenlyside on top form. I found him even more convincing here than I did in (where he took the part of Rodrigo) and, if the above argument is true – that it is Lady Macbeth that gets the really juicy arias –  Keenlyside seemed out to disprove it. He was full of steely resolve in Act 2 to terminate Banquo, and indeed here he worked in perfect tandem with his Lady Macbeth. His hallucinations later in the act were incredibly well done. Keenlyside’s legato was a thing of wonder. There was however the inescapable impression that Keenlyside’s voice was tiring in the later stages of the evening, something that came as rather unexpected. Keenlyside is a singer of huge experience, so mistiming his exertions (of which there were many) seems uncharacteristic.

Raymond Aceto’s Banquo began badly – rather unsteadily, in fact, before building into something altogether more convincing. Aceto has previously sung this role in Chicago. Both Dimitri Pittas (Macduff) and Steven Ebel (Malcolm) acquitted themselves creditably, although Pittas could perhaps add more subtlety to his reading.

Antonio Pappano was conducting his first Macbeth at Covent Garden. His account was urgently dramatic, so much so that the opening of the opera had me doubting his speeds. Were they to be too quick? I needn’t have worried, and the orchestra responded superbly, both in terms of accuracy and in terms of malleability (they seemed totally at Pappano’s will).There was a great lyric impulse to the opening of the second act, for instance, that seemed to fit the prevailing emotions perfectly. The final words of this critique should go to the chorus, here on top form. They have plenty to do in Macbeth, and whatever they did on this opening night seemed flecked with the very magic that lies at the heart of this supernatural drama.

Please note that this production of Macbeth will be relayed to cinemas worldwide on June 13.

Colin Clarke