New Macbeth Opera at Covent Garden Fails to Excite

Macbeth Robert Workman
Luke Styles’ Macbeth (c) Robert Workman

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Luke Styles, Macbeth: Soloists, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jeremy Bines (conductor). Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, 9.9.2015 (MB)


Duncan, Second Murderer – John Mackenzie-Lavansch
Malcolm – Michael Wallace
Sergeant, First Murderer – David Shaw
Lennox, Third Murderer – James Geer
Ross – Benjamin Cahn
Macbeth – Ed Ballard
Banquo – Alessandro Fisher
Lady Macbeth – Aidan Coburn
Macduff – Richard Bignall
Fleance – Luke Saint
Lady Macduff, Porter – Andrew Davies
Macduff’s Son – Xavier Murtagh


Ted Huffman (director and librettist)
Kitty Callister (designs)
David Manion (lighting)

I applauded the Royal Opera House – and still do – for presenting a new work as the first piece in its new season. It was not its first performance; that had been given at Glyndebourne. But that is beside the point. A commitment to contemporary opera has been growing at Covent Garden, and that is in every respect an excellent thing. An inevitable consequence of that, despite the safeguards of workshops and so on, is that not all the works presented will turn out to be imperishable, or even perishable, masterpieces. There is no problem with that; frankly, much of the bewildering operatic repertoire is of dubious æsthetic quality in any case.

If that sounds like a build-up to disappointment in this particular case, then I am afraid it is. There is no need to repeat the difficulties or indeed the opportunities concerning the transformation of Shakespeare into opera. Especially to an Anglophone audience, familiarity with the words as well as the story – Ted Huffman uses Shakespeare’s words, albeit ‘cut, occasionally re-ordered, and, in a few cases, … reappropriated from other characters – enables re-adaptation and the idea of readaptation to take a place closer to centre stage than might otherwise be the case, although there is no particular sense of this as a meta-opera. What we have is a concentration upon politics; the witches are nowhere to be seen. (One particularly celebrated composer has already treated them in ludicrous fashion; they may well be better off left alone.) And we have a surprising, intriguing foreshortening, ending with Macbeth’s coming to power, in almost Poppea-like triumph, although an ‘evening-length’ version of this seventy-five minute, single-act work is envisaged by composer and librettist. As it stands, there is ironic power in hearing what was Malcolm’s closing speech – to what I assume is intentionally banal music – in the voice of a victorious Macbeth, and I think there would be even if one did not know of the transformation. It seems odd, in an opera, to eschew the possibilities afforded by soliloquy, but there might well be an imperative to alienate, so there is no need to condemn on principle.

Alas, what has emerged proves – with the usual caveats concerning a single performance – more dull than anything else. This is not a disaster, during the performance of which one simply feels embarrassed. However, the lack of musical characterisation, vocal interest, probing of any of the possibilities an all-male cast might have offered, all seem a missed opportunities, given the richness of the source. The musical language often sounds close, in a generalised sense, to Britten, but without – well, you can complete the rest from those three lacking qualities alone. Differentiation of soundworld between internal reflection and external military – two percussionists certainly make their mark – is for me perhaps the strongest feature of the score.

Lady Macbeth, a character with, to put it mildly, operatic potential, is played by a tenor, but that seems to be it in gender terms. ‘Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,’ might have seemed a fruitful line to pursue sung by a man, but it is not present. She more or less disappears from dramatic view, and even before she does gives little impression of what it might be that has elevated her into the dramatic pantheon. Macbeth fares a little better, but more simply from his presence, from Shakespeare, and, in this case, from a highly engaging performance from Ed Ballard (real stage presence, both physically and musically!) than from the work itself.

Indeed, I had no problem with any elements of the performance. The cast performed creditably; if feats of characterisation were not achieved, that is hardly the singers’ fault. This remained in many ways an excellent opportunity, well taken, for members of the Glyndebourne Chorus and its Jerwood Young Artists Programme. I am sure we shall hear more from a good number of them. The LPO chamber ensemble under Jeremy Bines sounded committed and incisive throughout, as if this actually were The Rape of Lucretia. Moreover, Huffman’s production, in modern army dress, seemed well thought through and executed and suggested its own parallels with recent and contemporary politics and warfare.

Who knows? In the highly unlikely event that anyone reads this in a century’s time, mine might be one of those ridiculous views cited in descriptions of ‘initial audience failure for subsequently acclaimed masterpieces’. In a way, I hope it is, or at least, so as not to be too conceited, that a view like mine is, since I should much rather we have another masterpiece than not. Rightly or wrongly, I cannot imagine what, at least from this first version, might lead to such a transformation in judgement.

Mark Berry

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