The Royal Opera’s Macbeth captures the spirit of Shakespeare’s tragedy, funnelled through Verdi’s genius

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Macbeth: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Daniele Rustioni (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 16.11.2021. (CC)

Simon Keenlyside (Macbeth) and Anna Pirozzi (Lady Macbeth) © Clive Barda

Director – Phyllida Lloyd
Revival director – Daniel Dooner
Designer – Anthony Ward
Lighting designer – Paule Constable
Choreographer – Michael Keegan-Dolan
Revival Choreographer – Angelo Smimmo
Fight director – Terry King 

Cast included:
Macbeth – Simon Keenlyside
Banquo – Günther Groissböck
Lady Macbeth – Anna Pirozzi
Lady-In-Waiting – April Koyejo-Audiger
Duncan – John Gorick
Malcolm Egor Zhuravskii
Macduff – David Junghoon Kim
Fleance – Malakai Bayoh
Assassin – Olle Zetterström
Doctor – Blaise Malaba

My colleague Jim Pritchard was present at the last incarnation of Phyllida Lloyd’s production in 2018 (review click here) a cast that included Anna Netrebko as Lady Macbeth and IIdebrando d’Arcangelo as Banquo. Again, a hybrid score is used, mainly the Paris 1865, but with some additions from the 1847 Florence version.

This new run resurrects Lloyd’s production, with revival director Daniel Dooner in charge. This is a production that cuts to the heart of the piece (and indeed Shakespeare’s original) in that lighting has a pre-eminent role in the very fabric of the story itself. Or is that ‘darking’ as opposed to lighting? For as in Shakespeare’s play, it is darkness that is the default position, whether in the witches’ scenes or in the darkness of the main protagonists’ souls. (Light or lack of it, provides the basis for many of Shakespeare’s metaphors). In the world of Macbeth, light is the intruder, and Paule Constable’s lighting ensures we the audience very much feel this reversal, as shafts of light pierce the prevailing gloom from doorways, unwelcome guests, only to retreat back into shadow. The effect is to draw one in rather than to oppress; to fascinate rather than to repel, as we drown in the shadows of the psyche. Perhaps we should wonder what lies within us within the deepest, darkest corners of our minds …

The Royal Opera’s Macbeth © Cive Barda

Another source of light is gold, whether the gold cage that dominates the set or golden costumes of the royal pair, vapid symbols of a power that is never to really come to hold, or perhaps a side-glance to Merchant of Venice and ‘All that glisters is not gold’. And while choruses are always impressive, they do not speak of ostentation in the staging. There is a commendable sparsity of stage furniture: a bed, a golden cage, some sliding walls for Glamis Castle. The attention focuses, therefore, upon the prevailing drama. There are some additions that may be an acquired taste: a little vignette of an alternative future for the Macbeths, for example, with the pair in bed surrounded by what presumably are little Macbeths.

Two factors on the musical front elevated this performance to enable Macbeth to shine as the masterpiece it truly is. The cast worked brilliantly together with no overt ‘superstar’ but instead was a balanced ensemble full of talent both established and upcoming (of which more anon). But it is the sounds that came out of the pit that deserves unstinting praise. Daniele Rustioni clearly understands every microfibre of Verdi’s score; and then knows how to knit the strands together to forge an awe-inspiring whole. This is not late Verdi, so in a humdrum performance some of Verdi’s orchestral writing can easily appear routine; not once was that the case here, with rhythms finely sprung and orchestral colours beautifully, darkly, vibrant. If ever you had cause to doubt whether the Covent Garden orchestra was a full-grown international orchestra of the highest standard, despair thy curse: the ‘engine’ of this Macbeth was a Rolls Royce. Rustioni’s ability to work with the melodic line, creating endless melody almost, was remarkable and clearly inspired his singers, the second part of that musical dyad.

Bringing the lyricism of lieder, heart-wrenching acting skills and a voice of both beauty and power to the role of Macbeth himself was Sir Simon Keenlyside. Way back in 2009, Keenlyside’s Rodrigo in the Don Carlo (review click here) conducted by Semyon Bychkov showed how impressive he can be in this repertoire; this was several notches up again. The traversal of emotions from elation to doubt and to panic and fear as this Macbeth emerges painted in the blood of his victim was palpable. His Lady Macbeth here was Anna Pirozzi, a soprano who made her Royal Opera debut in 2018 as Leonore in Il trovatore (she will reprise the role of Lady Macbeth at the Vienna State Opera in January 2022). Lady Macbeth dominates Act I Scene 2 and Pirozzi gave it her all, revealing her vocal virtuosity. Occasionally tuning was the victim of enthusiasm, though, and hopefully that will settle as the run proceeds. Certainly, later in the opera she was mesmerising, particularly in the sleepwalking scene towards the end. Pirozzi’s technique in Verdi’s demanding faster passages can be remarkable, even dazzling; just a touch more chemistry between Keenlyside and Pirozzi would have sealed the deal.

As Banquo (whose appearance as a ghost is very sensitively handled by Lloyd), Günther Groissböck was magnificent, the perfect foil for Keenlyside’s voice: rich, burnished. he delivered magnificently. And how wonderful to see David Junghoon Kim, whose hyperlinks to previous reviews would take up line after line, in a role that allowed him to shine: he was a splendid Macduff, full of confidence both vocally and in acting terms. In the smaller roles, April Koyejo-Audiger was a strong Lady-in-Waiting and also good to see and hear Blaise Malaba (Doctor) get his due. Malaba is a brilliant singer and also has great stage presence; a notable combination that will stand him well in what I am sure will be future successes. Malaba and Koyejo-Audiger were two of a trio of Jette Parker artists, the third being the focused Malcom of Egor Zhuravskii. All three singers did themselves proud, absolutely equal in quality to anyone in the cast.

Talking of threes, Shakespeare gave us a Dark Trinity of witches; Verdi gives us a huge chorus of them, the Royal Opera Chorus’s female voices were in simply awe-inspiring form (as were the males for the less supernatural cast members). The Royal Opera Chorus is a magnificent entity and to hear it shine like this – again, with Rustioni giving the lines just the right amount of time to speak – was a privilege indeed.

A magnificent evening. Verdi requires great conductors. London is lucky in having had Sir Antonio Pappano once in charge and, for this run, Rustioni at the helm. A concerted effort, then, another triumvirate (conductor and orchestra/production/singers). Most of all is the way that the evening captures the spirit of Shakespeare’s tragedy, funnelled through the genius of Verdi. See a performance at Covent Garden or on Friday 26 November, Macbeth will be streamed live via ROH Stream. Unmissable.

Colin Clarke

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