Fascinating and Stimulating Macbeth at Iford Manor

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Macbeth Opera in four acts (sung in English): Soloists, CHROMA / Oliver Gooch (conductor), Iford Arts, Iford Manor, Wiltshire, 10.6.2016. (CR)

Director: Bruno Ravella
Designer: Alyson Cummins
Choreographer: Jo Meredith
Lighting Designer: Christopher Nairne

Macbeth: Eddie Wade
Lady Macbeth: Laura Parfitt
Macduff: Chris Turner
Banquo: Barnaby Rea
Dama: Tanya Hurst
Malcolm: Olvier Brignall
Doctor/Ensemble: Julian Debreuil
Witch One/Ensemble: Aoife O’Connell
Witch Two/Ensemble: Claire Filer
Witch Three/Ensemble: Sarah Richmond
Ensemble tenor: Michael Vincent Jones
Ensemble baritone: James Corrigan
Fleance: Charlie Maggs

There are music festivals aplenty during these midsummer months, each often displaying an idiosyncratic approach to programming or presentation, particularly where the genius loci of a particular place can be exploited. Iford Arts (now in its twenty-first year) is certainly distinctive for the bold and imaginative way in which it presents its operas each season in the small cloister of the Italianate gardens of the 18th century Iford Manor in Wiltshire. The cloister is only a century-old addition to the grounds, but it is neo-Romanesque and covered, so its dark, introverted space evocatively conjures up the ethereal other-worldliness of the mediaeval period. Iford Arts take that as the basis this season for operas with a supernatural element.

Macbeth, of course, fits that with its witches and apparitions. If anything, that spookiness was underplayed, as the ghost of Banquo did not actually appear at the banquet in Act Two, but was left solely as a figment of Macbeth’s terrified imagination. However a slow procession of kings did appear in Act Three in another feverish vision, as well as a pallid-looking Banquo. The three witches of Aoife O’Connell, Claire Filer, and Sarah Richmond were far from the haggish, spectres of gothic nightmare but rather fresh-faced and voiced, drawing out the irony and levity of their music. However, their costume made them look somewhat like nuns, and the black-cowled figures of Macbeth’s assassins appearing like monks seemed to suggest a subversion of the cloister’s religious aura and therefore a resourceful engagement with its space on the part of Bruno Ravella in his production.

The lead singers were of sound Verdian pedigree with Laura Parfitt’s Lady Macbeth easily making the biggest impression on account of her dramatic, uncompromising singing. For a small but resonant space it was perhaps too overpowering, as her wide vibrato would have been better suited to the far larger dimensions of a standard opera house, but that is an incidental observation rather than a criticism of the intrinsic quality of her performance. From Eddie Wade there was a contrastingly subdued, wearied account of Macbeth, though still commanding in its own way – in carrying out the witches’ prophecies and attaining the crown by murderous means, it could be said that this Macbeth is one more with greatness thrust upon him than achieving greatness.

Both Christopher Turner and Oliver Brignall sang radiantly as Macduff and Malcolm respectively – perhaps seemingly out of place with the prevailing gloom of the drama, but certainly in keeping with the often lyrical tone of Verdi’s setting as an Italian opera. Barnaby Rea’s Banquo was a figure of considerable gravitas and stature, rightly haunting the production, as well as Macbeth’s conscience.

In order to fit the musical forces within the narrow confines of the cloister, the score was presented in a reduced version by Francis Griffin and performed by CHROMA with just 14 instrumentalists. Conducting them, Oliver Gooch maintained a lively pace and secured impressive unanimity from what might otherwise have seemed a chamber ensemble of random sonorities. Without a wide acoustic to project into, the music could afford to be declaimed less but trip along briskly. At times the music may, inadvertently, have sounded like Gilbert and Sullivan (and especially by being rendered in English here), but that was on account of the similar textures that such a pared-down reading of Verdi’s scores reveals. Solos from the brass and the cor anglais made for some notably arresting moments.

Given the lack of space, other compromises have to be made in terms of choreography, props, and scene changes. For a grand, dramatic opera like Macbeth, one might also lose something in seeing the action at such a close range and in reduced scope. But once these are accepted, the production is rewarding to watch and the proximity of the performers perhaps makes the drama seem more engaging. In any case, with the performance taking place within the central square of the cloisters (effectively ‘in the round’) and the audience seated in the vaulted passages around the edges, the arcade around those ranges physically embodies the fourth wall of dramatic theatre, standing like a multiplicity of proscenium arches between actors and spectators, and preserving some sense of a ritualised enactment before the audience. This Macbeth makes for a fascinating and stimulating experience, therefore, and different from the usual sort of operatic sublime one may encounter elsewhere.

Curtis Rogers

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