Ekaterina Semenchuk is the shining star in David McVicar’s revised St Petersburg Macbeth

Russian FederationRussian Federation Verdi, Macbeth: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre / Valery Gergiev (conductor), Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 29.10.2021. (GT)

Ekaterina Semenchuk (Lady Macbeth) in Mariinsky Theatre’s Macbeth

Stage direction – David McVicar
Performance director – Ksenia Yekimova
Set designer – Tanya McCallin
Lighting designer – David Cunningham
Fight choreography – Sergey Mishenyov
Chorus directors – Konstantin Rylov, Nikolay Gribanov

Macbeth – Vladislav Sulimsky
Lady Macbeth – Ekaterina Semenchuk
Macduff – Hamid Abdulov
Banquo – Yevgeny Nikitin
Duncan – Kirill Chistyakov
Malcolm – Stanislav Leontyev
Court Lady – Elena Uzhakova
Fleance – Marat Bikmukhametov
Harold/Doctor/Servant – Grigory Karasyev
Murderer – Oleg Sychev
Ghosts – Alexander Zhuravsky, Yegor Kolesnikov

The city of St Petersburg has a long tradition in performances of Verdi’s Macbeth as they do in Shakespeare dramas; I can well recall attending an excellent performance of the tragedy at the Bolshoi Drama Theatre, so much so I returned for a second performance. Verdi’s opera Macbeth was called Siward Saxon when it was first heard here on 1 December 1854. This was in a performance by the Imperial Italian Opera Company at the Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre which occupied a site opposite to the Mariinsky Theatre where there is located the Conservatoire.

This production by Sir David McVicar was premiered on 18 April 2001 in a performance which I was fortunate enough to attend, made more special in that a fellow Scotsman was stage director, and almost certainly the first occasion that a Scot has been in charge of an opera production in Russia. The setting was remarkably bleak on that evening with few props, and disconcertingly, as a murder was about to happen, a dark blood-stained curtain would descend from above, and then ascend. The Russian press called the production ‘gloomy, macabre and unpleasant’. However, since which, I have seen other productions of the opera which have led me to change my opinion to the better about McVicar’s staging.

Mariinsky Theatre’s Macbeth

Under Valery Gergiev’s direction, the gloriously mellifluous brass section was resplendent in the opening overture, following which the large chorus of witches sang as well as any chorus could in their refrain, ‘M’e frullata nel pensier’ (‘I mind me of a steersman’s wife … ‘), and later, ‘Salve! Salve! Salve! Men sarai di Macbetto eppur maggiore!’ (Hail! Hail! Hail! Lesser than Macbeth and greater…). If this wasn’t enough, with the appearance in the letter scene of Ekaterina Semenchuk as Lady Macbeth, it was clear that we were in for a great performance, with ‘Nel di della vittoria io le incontrai…’ (‘I met them in the day of success’) her character is already showing signs in her voice and facial expression of madness and her ‘Tu, notte, ne avvolgi…’ (Wrap us, night, in fixed impenetrable darkness…) was just as stunning – singing sotto voce – as she now plans Duncan’s murder. In this revised staging, the witches rise from hatches in the floor as do other characters and notably there was a particularly fine duet between Macduff and Banquo. In the first performances at the Mariinsky, a chamber at the side of the stage accommodated the king, now he descends through a trapdoor, and following the discovery of his murder, the element of fear and shock was palpable with the chorus singing ‘Schiudi, inferno, la bocca ed inghiotti…’ (‘Open wide thy gaping maw, oh Hell…’) as the funeral cortege of Duncan moves off. In Act II, again we heard and felt a complete characterisation from Semenchuk as Lady Macbeth, ‘La luce langue, il faro spegnesi…’ (‘Light thickens, the beacon that eternally…’) bringing out every nuance of her demented state.

The arioso of Yevgeny Nikitin’s Banquo ‘Studia il passo, o mio figlio … usciam da queste’ (‘Be careful how you go, my son…’) before he is murdered came as part of an immensely powerful performance. In the banqueting scene, Vladislav Sulimsk’s Macbeth was equally magnificent in his arioso ‘Prenda ciascun l’orrevole…’ (‘Everyone be seated in his place…’), and later as he is shocked by the ghost of Banquo, ‘Sangue a me quell’ombra chiede…’ (‘That phantom will have blood…’). In Act III, the witches sing around a fire with dead corpses lying on stage, ‘Questo è il momento’ (‘Come! Round about the cauldron go in haste,’), and notably, we heard the poignant cor anglais of Yevgeny Khvalovsky bringing closer the feeling of terrifying emptiness. Following which, in a terribly moving scene, Lady Macbeth receives a little box wrapped in red clothes in which she discovers a dead child. The final duet between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, ‘Ora di morte e di vendetta’ (‘Hour of death and of vengeance’) brought this macabre scene to an end.

In Act IV, once more the outstanding chorus of Scottish refugees were deeply moving as they advanced slowly towards the audience, ‘Patria oppressa…’ (Down-trodden country…’), and the tragedy was accentuated by the lyric tenor of Hamid Abdulov’s Macduff. Now dressed as Scottish soldiers brandishing green banners transformed the scene and the well-choreographed battle on stage was dramatically and powerfully enacted. In the sleepwalking scene, accompanied poignantly by woodwind, Lady Macbeth appears wandering with a lamp, totally disturbed in her dementia, ‘Una macchia è qui tuttora …’ (‘Yet here’s a spot…’) in a scene of great singing and acting. The mood changed abruptly as finally in rush the victorious armies, and at last a great chorus of ‘Vittoria’ brought this superb production to a celebratory close.

If I was initially critical of the production when I first saw it in 2001, the stark bleakness of the sets throughout actually help the narrative, allowing the music and singing to take over. Of course, the magnificent dark bass of Sulimsky as Macbeth, and the wonderful baritone of Nikitin as Banquo and Abdulov’s tenor guaranteed success, matched by the rest of the cast and a wonderful chorus and orchestra. However, it was the world-class acting and singing of Semenchuk as Lady Macbeth that made this performance one of the highlights of the year.

Gregor Tassie

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