“Concept Opera” Production Does Macbeth No Favours

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Macbeth (1865) (sung in Italian with titles in English): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North / Tobias Ringborg (conductor), The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays, 6.3.2014. (RJF)

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

Production team.
Director: Tim Albery
Set Designer: Johan Engels
Costume Designer: Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Designer,: Bruno Poet
This production was first seen in the spring season of 2008 along with Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of a series of productions of operas loosely based on Shakespeare plays. At that time I noted that whilst I had greatly admired Tim Albery’s production of Katya Kabanova in the summer tour 2007 and his Madama Butterfly the following autumn in which he managed to include elements of updating, he did so without losing sight or sound, of the composers’ intentions. However, I also pointed out that that Verdi is a different kettle of fish. No other opera composer had such a feel for the theatre, or marries the music so well with his dramatic intentions.

Premiered in Florence in 1846 Macbeth was Verdi’s tenth opera and his first attempt at setting a work by Shakespeare, an author whom he revered and whose works he kept by his bedside, albeit in Italian translation. He wrote to the impresario Lanari giving detailed instructions as to décor and costumes, which he wanted to be historically accurate. He also wrote to the singers who were to portray Macbeth and his wife giving precise instructions as to how the music was to be performed. Verdi always composed with particular voices and even singers in mind, as was the case with Macbeth. He rehearsed his singers to the very last minute. His efforts gave rise to a resounding success that he cherished to the extent that when informed that Paris’s Théâtre Lyrique had enquired if the composer would write ballet music for insertion into his opera of 1847  for performance at the theatre he was delighted. Verdi indicated that the he wished to undertake a radical revision, in French, of the opera he had written eighteen years before. His changes for the revised Macbeth included new arias for Lady Macbeth and her husband and a new last act finale deleting Macbeth’s death scene as well as other detailed revisions. The downside to all of this is to be found is the different styles of musical composition and structure between the original and the rewritten parts with the composer’s greater musical maturity evident compared with the music from the earlier writing. These can present the conductor of a performance particular challenges that were well met by Tobias Ringborg in this performance in which he quickly adapted to The Lowry’s idiosyncratic acoustic.

Macbeth is well known as the Scottish play. In Albery’s production it might as well have been the Balkans. The set had a large steeply raked elliptical back surface to represent the blasted heath with three perches for witches and a door that opened to allow Duncan to enter alive and leave as a propped up bloody corpse. Updated to the mid-twentieth century there were no signs of tartan, bonnet, Glengarries or kilts, let alone sporrans. The witch’s headgear reminded me of Second World War cleaning ladies snoods. I think they were called snoods, or perhaps mob caps. Throughout the sparse stage was only furnished by black seats and a bed that was wheeled out from time to time. The first occasion was to facilitate Lady Macbeth’s arrival at a maternity delivery room, her dress stained with her burst waters, to give birth to a dead child that is quickly wrapped in newspaper and consigned to the litterbin!! Then it carried the dead bloodied Duncan and later a multiple birth as Malcolm’s wife gave birth to six, all duly crowned and passed and then tossed around. There was gimmick and more gimmick in which the Scottish play and Verdi’s creation and concept were completely lost. Producer concept, Regietheater, call it what you will, it did no service to Verdi, nor, looking at the acres of empty seats, to Opera North’s cash flow. Perhaps they are trying to mimic their London progenitor by increasing their deficit?! The invidious comparison with the previous evening’s production of The Girl of the Golden West which attracted high audience numbers was unavoidable,

If the staging was unacceptable it was not rescued by the solo singing. The principals were seemingly trawled from every corner of the earth without one being a truly Verdian voice. I know such voices are scarce on the ground, but whilst Macbeth and his Lady were fine in the admired concert performances of Die Walküre last summer, they lacked the requisite vocal colour and Italianate patina. I make an exception for Paul Whelan’s Banquo. His singing was nicely nuanced, as one would expect from a Royal Northern College of Music alumnus, lacking only more bass sonority. As always Opera North’s chorus did Verdi justice.


Robert J Farr

For review of Leeds performances please see: https://seenandheard-international.com/2014/02/opera-north-ratchets-tension-macbeth-revival/