“Macbeth” Goes Mondrian

CanadaCanada Verdi, Macbeth: Pacific Opera Victoria, soloists, Victoria Symphony, Timothy Vernon (conductor), Royal Theatre, Victoria, British Columbia, 4.10.2012 (BJ)


Macbeth: Gregory Dahl
Banquo: Alain Coulombe
Lady Macbeth: Lyne Fortin
Macbeth’s Servant: Stephen Barradell
Macduff: Robert Clark
An Assassin: Dale Friesen
First Apparition: Andy Erasmus
Second Apparition: Mary-Ellen Rayner
Third Apparition: Natalie Marcaccini
Malcolm: Matthew Johnson
A Doctor: Jon-Paul Décosse
Lady in Waiting: Rebecca Hass
Duncan (silent): Keith Lylock
Fleance (silent): Ajay Parikh-Friese


Morris Panych (director/choreographer)
Ken MacDonald (set designer)
Dana Osborne (costume designer)
Alan Brodie (lighting designer)
Giuseppe Pietraroia (chorus master and assistant conductor)
Robert Holliston (principal coach)

Yet again, music trumped drama, as happens distressingly often not just at Pacific Opera Victoria, but in opera houses everywhere. This presentation of Verdi’s Macbeth was a characteristically strong performance orchestrally under Tim Vernon’s galvanic leadership, and it was an even stronger one vocally than is usual with this excellent company.

There were, to start with, two fine voices to provide a resonant baritone and bass team of generals. Gregory Dahl seems to be a master of villainous roles: he made a formidable figure of Nick Shadow in POV’s Rake’s Progress three years ago, and now as Macbeth he combined evil with a redeeming touch of conscience; and as Banquo, Alain Coulombe was the straight man, singing with equally powerful heft, and portraying the same kind of honest decency as in last year’s premiere of Andrew P. MacDonald’s Mary’s Wedding.

Then, in the person of soprano Lyne Fortin, there was a Lady Macbeth who matched her husband flashing tone for tone, making their Act-1 duet a real feast of sumptuous vocalism. The important tenor roles of Macduff and Malcolm were finely sung too, by Robert Clark and Matthew Johnson, and there was not a single weak link in the rest of the cast.

Listening to this Macbeth was thus a consistent pleasure. What we were asked to look at, however, prompted a mixture of depression and incredulity. This was one of those productions that neutralize the drama in part by leaving nothing to the imagination. When Lady Macbeth, for example, in her sleepwalking scene, obsessed about the blood staining her hands, the entire stage was suffused in a red glow. Are we really so stupid that we need the point thrust in our faces in this way?

That, though, was not the worst thing about what director Morris Panych and his frequent collaborator, set designer Ken MacDonald, had wrought. At the start, the witches could be seen, through a scrim, siphoning attention off from the music as they cast their spells at the back of the stage. The use of scrims hardly abated all evening, with results that were similarly distracting more often than not. “Helpful” pieces of information, such as “Act 3” or “Outside Macbeth’s Castle” (in case we couldn’t tell from the scattering of leaves depicted) were constantly being projected. And bars of white or red kept creeping across our visual field, or up and down on it, while more solid white columns forever did a sort of dance up and down, on and above the stage.

What is one to say about a director who has a column of red shoot upwards while his Macbeth is singing; then raises the scrim and sends him wandering upstage; then has him come back towards the footlights and brings the scrim down again behind him – all in the course of a single aria, which it was almost impossible in these conditions to concentrate on listening to. (I think I am remembering all those activities in the right order, but accuracy matters little in so nonsensical a context.)

The Macbeths are, of course, not exactly a lovey-dovey pair. She scarcely had time for him, so busy was she lying on their bed and caressing her own knee. But whatever else you might say about them, in this production they were certainly a couple with advanced artistic tastes. They had obviously brought in Charles Rennie Mackintosh or one of his disciples to design their chairs, and Piet Mondrian to do the interior decoration of their castle: the set was dominated, on and behind the scrims, by rectangles of various sizes, and in the final scene by a positively super-Mondrianish festival of rectangles.

The production suffered all sorts of problems in the matter of hair. Observing that he wanted to call the witches women, Banquo went on to say that their “filthy beards” prevented it – there were no beards to be seen; Macbeth remarked a little later, “I feel my hair stand on end” – but he didn’t actually seem to have any; and there were other such examples. But to complain of such things is perhaps to be excessively literal. A degree of stylization is no bad thing, and when Lady Macbeth checked her make-up in a mirror that was simply a frame with no glass in it, the effect was rather touching.

Though the costumes were on the whole serviceable enough, Banquo’s murder was hardly a surprise – he was asking for trouble when he flew in the face of Scottish fashion by putting on a pair of ordinary trousers. And in the last act, when Macbeth asked for his armor to be brought to him, all his sidekicks could come up with was a natty little leather waistcoat that would scarcely have protected him from a bee-sting.

I’m sorry: such criticisms may sound somewhat frivolous. But it was the production itself, a Canadian counterpart of Eurotrashy “Regietheater,” that brought Macbeth down from its lofty if inconsistent level of inspiration to that of a mere box of stage tricks. Artistic director Vernon and his team deserved better. Still, they offered so good a musical account of Verdi’s compelling early engagement with Shakespeare as to make the evening, on balance, convincing and memorable.

Bernard Jacobson