China Verdi, Macbeth: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of China NCPA, Daniel Oren (conductor), National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing, 7.9.2016. (RP)
Macbeth ̶̶ Plácido Domingo
Lady Macbeth ̶ Xiuwei Sun
Banco ̶ Hao Jiang Tian
Macduff ̶ Wang Chong
Lady in Waiting ̶ Wang Jing
Malcolm ̶ Luo Yang
Doctor ̶ Liu Wenshuai
Macbeth’s Servant –Yang Shuai
Messenger – Chai Jin
Assassin – Wang Chong
Three Ghosts – Chen Ran, Zhao Nan & Zhao Jin
Director/Set Designer & Costume Designer –Hugo de Ana
Lighting Designer – Paolo Mazzon
Projection Designer – Sergio Metalli
Choreographer – Alessandra Panzavolta
Graphic Designer – Mattia Metalli
Chorus Master – Ciro Visco
Opera is still grand in Beijing. Tight budgets (or the lack of imagination) have resulted more and more in stage directors defaulting to basic black, with tables and chairs often the only nod to set design in many opera houses. Not so at Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) where Hugo de Ana’s new production of Verdi’s Macbeth premiered on 7 September. De Ana is not grand in the manner of Franco Zeffirelli or Giancarlo del Monaco, whose monumental sets, historical accuracy and spectacle at times dwarf singers and drama alike. Rather, it is the scope and breadth of his approach, combining enormous stage elements, projections, video, choreography and deft staging, which make this Macbeth grand. He turns to Verdi’s dictate – ‘to come back to the ancient: and this will be a progress’ – as his starting point.
Circles and spheres are key components of de Ana’s concept for Macbeth. They appear as giant moons and planets projected on a scrim, astrological and astronomical charts, a giant, hollow hemisphere and enormous stone discs upon which ancient runes and Celtic symbols are carved. Battle scenes are a swirl of motion with projections of enormous horses racing across the stage. Birnam Wood, a forest of trees with yellow leaves, materializes and marches. With the witches’ prophecy fulfilled, the dark and gloom dissipate, and the stage is awash with light. There are only two ideas that fail to launch, both in Act III, and both involving transparent plastic. The plastic wrap that encases the bodies of fallen soldiers just looks cheap, as do the sheets of clear plastic which encase writhing spirits. With so much to engage the senses, they are out of place and add nothing.
In their tartans and flowing capes, Plácido Domingo in the title role and Hao Jiang Tian as Banco are swarthy and dashing Scottish warriors. The lords and ladies who watch Macbeth descend into madness are attired in rich blue and violet, their faces obscured by ornate masks adorned with pearls. In their fleeting moment of glory, Macbeth and his lady don magnificent robes of gold. The witches and spirits of the netherworld are androgynous, faceless, almost translucent, writhing creatures, devoid of the flesh and blood of the mortal inhabitants of this realm.
I had not heard Domingo sing in over thirteen years. I count myself fortunate to have been a regular at the Metropolitan Opera in New York for more than two decades and had the privilege of hearing him in many of his most important roles. The man is a miracle: he is still the Domingo of yore. It is the same, instantly identifiable sound with its distinctive timbre, and his ability to infuse words with drama remains intact. The only sign of the passing years was a rare phrase that drooped. And, of course, the highest notes of the role are not in his comfort zone, so the excitement of a Verdi baritone singing full throttle in his upper register is missing. Macbeth, however, is a role that Domingo was born to sing, at what can only be deemed the prime of his career. How good it was to hear him again.
Macbeth’s countrymen, who are either murdered or live to ultimately vanquish him, were strongly cast. Bass Hao Jiang Tian, another singer whom I heard often at the Met, was excellent as Banco. His firm bass lent eloquence and drama to the Act II aria ‘Come dal ciel precipita’. The murdered Banco’s spirit returned to haunt Macbeth in the form of giant menacing projections, terrifying him and the audience alike. Tenor Wang Chong’s voice does not have the Italian ring and thrust to fully do justice to the role of Macduff but, nonetheless, ‘Ah, la paterna mano’ was enthusiastically applauded, as much for his compelling stage presence as his accomplished singing. Luo Yang as Malcolm only sings a few lines, but his brilliant tenor (with what sounded like real Italian squillo) caught one’s ear.
With his famous dictate that Lady Macbeth required a voice that was ‘hard, stifled and dark’ with ‘something devilish’ in the vocal quality, Verdi opened the door to many female singers to take a stab at the role. These days we tend to go for big, brilliant and bold, although Anna Netrebko’s success in the role proves that vocal beauty can also be a potent factor, not that she is lacking in any of the other three qualities. Soprano Xiuwei Sun can act the role, and quite convincingly as she has that devilish quality, but she really cannot sing it. There are gleaming, well-placed high notes, best when floated without undue pressure, but a wide vibrato mars her middle and lower ranges, making a muddle of line and pitch; trills are not so much a technical feat as an extension of her vibrato. In a stellar production, she was the weakest link by far.
Daniel Oren brings fire and excitement to Verdi’s music. The NCPA’s chorus and orchestra respond well to his emphatic and demonstrative style, and he has done much to mold them into the ensembles that they are today. His best work came in Act III, where he carefully shaped and melded the eerie and menacing music of the witches and their fateful prophesies with the triumphant joy of the bloodthirsty couple in their duet, ‘Ora di morte e di vendetta’. But did he really need to egg on the audience to a frenzied and prolonged ovation after Macbeth’s death? This opera’s ending is problematic enough without any interference from the director or the conductor. As a result the final chorus was all but superfluous, an afterthought at best. No one can say, however, that his style isn’t grand, and the last thing this Macbeth needed was a milquetoast conductor.