Opera North Ratchets Up Tension in Macbeth Revival

United KingdomUnited KingdomVerdi, Macbeth: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North/Tobias Ringborg(conductor), Leeds Grand Theatre, Leeds 7.2.2014 (JL)

Macbeth:  Béla Perencz
Lady Macbeth:  Kelly Cae Hogan
Macduff:  Jung Soo Yun
Banquo : Paul Whelan
Malcolm Robyn:  Lyn Evans
Lady in Waiting:  Victoria Sharp
Doctor: Dean Robinson
Director:  Tim Albery
Set Designer : Johan Engels
Costume Designer:  Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Designer:  Bruno Poet
Choreographer : Maxine Braham


This is a revival of a 2008 production for Opera North by one of Britain’s, if not the world’s, more distinguished opera directors, Tim Albery. Since then the show  has travelled the globe and now returns home with a new cast.

 One of Shakespeare’s messages in Macbeth, as well as in  Richard III, is the universal one that if you kill your way to kingship you are likely to come to a sticky end. This is in keeping with  philosopher Hegel’s observation that what  people learn from history is that people don’t learn from history.

 Macbeth’s bloody path to the Scottish crown has an interesting dynamic in that  it is not primarily self-driven as with Richard III.  The possibility of becoming King is planted in his head by three women (witches)  and the motivational force behind achieving the goal is provided by his wife. Well Shakespeare’s contemporary, philosopher Francis Bacon, did warn men in power to watch out for women.

 Tim Albery’s operatic realisation seems to prove him an exception to Hegel’s dictum.  Back in the 1990s he produced the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford, a rendering widely condemned as a sleep-inducing bore. He appears to have learned from his own experience, for his take on Verdi is edge-of-the-seat stuff: vigorous, pacey and violent, focusing uncompromisingly on the key relationships mentioned above.

 The austere setting could be a twentieth century fascist  or communist state. The simply designed  environment, including costumes,  is largely monochromatic, subtle lighting producing telling shadow effects. Symbols abound such as the ever present tall branches standing like soldiers at either side of the stage, foretelling us  of  the association of Macbeth’s demise with the trees of  Birnam Wood.  A  symbolic life and death hospital bed is wheeled on and off throughout,  becoming a vehicle for  miscarried birth, murder, copulation and suicide.

 The production is in keeping with Verdi’s exhortation to his librettist, Piave, to keep the scenario and text “strong and concise” and also with his desire to focus rigorously on the  witches and, above all, on Macbeth and his wife.  The casting of  Béla Perencz and Kelly Cae Hogan in the two roles represents the bizarre reforging of  a partnership last seen in 2012 as Wotan and Brünhilde in Opera North’s spectacularly successful  presentation of Wagner’s  Die Walküre  from which  we may conclude that these are big voices.  Both of them are fine actors, Kelly Cae Hogan utterly convincing as the dominant woman keeping her man on course,  Béla Perencz as the confident military man descending to his guilt ridden end.

 With voices as powerful as these there was no need for conductor Tobias Ringborg to hold back the splendid orchestra and marvellously loud chorus. In the huge ensemble climaxes at the ends of Acts 1 and 2  Kelly Cae Hogan’s high notes  rode the waves of sound with  thrilling ease. Baritone Béla Perencz became increasingly, vocally commanding through the evening and his Act III soliloquy on the useless vanity of life, “sound and fury signifying nothing”  was a tremendous tour de force of actor/singing.

 The roles of Macbeth’s friend Banquo, and adversary Macduff  do not offer  much into which the singers can  get their teeth, but they do have their moments. Paul Whelan as Banquo was a slightly awkward stage presence at first but this was easily compensated by an authoritative and forceful baritone delivery.  Tenor Jung Soo Yun’s Macduff  had little chance to shine until late in the opera  when his wonderful aria came near to bringing the house down.

 The witches were joyfully malevolent,  and together with the spirits whirled about in superb execution of the imaginative choreography.

 Starting with the  orchestra’s  powerfully rendered prelude that sets  a mood of dark foreboding, this was an evening of operatic excellence in which the tension was steadily ratcheted up to the very end.

 This is a worthy revival that can next be seen next at Salford, Newcastle and Nottingham. (See www.operanorth.co.uk)

John Leeman