Verdi’s Macbeth proves infertile ground for Krzysztof Warlikowski at the Salzburg Festival

AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival 2023 [2] – Verdi, Macbeth: Soloists, Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus, Angelika Prokopp Summer Academy of the Vienna Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Philippe Jordan (conductor). Performance of 29.7.2023 (directed by Henning Kasten) and available until 27.10.2023 on ARTE Concert. (JPr)

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Macbeth Act II, Scene 3 © Bernd Uhlig

Let’s begin by recalling what Verdi wrote in a letter to librettist Francesco Maria Piave concerning Macbeth when he described the tragedy as ‘one of the greatest human creations! … If we can’t do something great, let us at least try to do something out of the ordinary.’ Verdi had discovered Shakespeare several years earlier through the Italian prose translations of Carlo Rusconi and this was the first of his operas based on the work of The Bard. It is considered that in composing Macbeth in 1847 Verdi took a big step forward in his development. I am no expert on Verdi – nor anything possibly? – but I suspect what we heard in this new Salzburg Festival production probably was David Lawton’s 2006 critical edition which drew together Verdi’s earliest thoughts along with the revised version he prepared for Paris in 1865. Certainly Macbeth’s 1847 death scene with his final aria (‘Mal per me che m’affidai’) is now included though this had been discarded in Paris for the concluding hymn of victory.

The question is does Krzysztof Warlikowski ‘do something great’ or ‘something out of the ordinary’ with his Macbeth? For a relatively short opera – less than 2½ hours of music – it still seems to stop and start quite a bit with its mix of monologues, duets and ensembles and it is clear the Verdi of this Macbeth was inferior to the Verdi of his later operas. Perhaps restricted by the shallow but very wide Grosses Festspielhaus stage there is nothing ‘out of the ordinary’ from Warlikowski either (a review of a 2020 Elektra here). There is much we might have seen before in modern reimaginings of familiar operas: a screened cubicle – used here for a medical examination and the ailing King Duncan’s bedroom – slides on from one side of the stage, and a large waiting room with a TV screen and sink comes on from the other side where all the witches (shown blind, yet all-seeing) are gathered. Above is a stage-wide enclosed walkway and below – also stage-wide – is a line of connected wooden benches. In Act III when the guests gather for dinner some are on tiered stadium seating while others gather round a small table which apart from some armchairs completes Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s stage furnishings whilst her costumes suggest the 1930s and the rise of fascism. Video seems de rigueur these days for opera, not only do we enter the action on the small TV screen it is also shown from time to time above the stage, otherwise there are clips from films and I believe I recognised something from Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew at one point in Act IV.

It is not entirely clear – at least to me watching the transmission – what happens during the dramatic overture when we see a young baby suckling as well as some tree-lined pasture. I suspect that baby will be abandoned but nevertheless on the bench below Lady Macbeth with fur hat, stole and muff seems to be reminiscing. At the other end of the bench sits Macbeth in black overcoat and wearing a trilby and with his head down. Soon we realise Lady Macbeth is awaiting a gynaecological examination which will reveal she is infertile. She will burn her test results in the sink and is this the trigger for the murderous rampage which follows if we also consider that Macbeth has been told he will become king but it will be Banquo who fathers future kings. A hospital bed is prepared for King Duncan’s visits so maybe he hasn’t long to live anyway. Regardless a somewhat conflicted Macbeth smothers him and stabs him with a small penknife. At this point there is a lot of roaming around the benches before Lady Macbeth disposes of the knife and the two of them wash their hands in the sink. Warlikowski then shows us Duncan’s funeral as the Macbeths receive the regalia as the new king and queen.

The second act begins with Macbeth watching Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex before instructing a large group of assassins in trench coats and dark glasses that they are to kill Banquo. Meanwhile a table is laid for a banquet and we see Lady Macbeth glammed up in a haute couture shiny multi-coloured gown and she performs her drinking song at a microphone for the assembled guests. An aged servant helps Banquo’s son, Fleance, escape as he assassinated. Macbeth soon begins to go downhill and the ghost of Banquo he believes he sees is in fact a face he has drawn on one of the white balloons around the table. At the end of the act a suitably garnished baby doll is served to the table on a silver platter.

At the beginning of the third act the witches reappear aided and abetted by some evil-looking children in masks who like nothing more than dismembering dolls or practicing voodoo with one of them that has some large pins stuck into it. The visions of future rulers include a child wheeled on with an iron mask. Macbeth will eventually be haunted by several children with Banquo masks before a dissolute-looking Lady Macbeth enters and the two vow to kill Fleance and Macduff who the witches warned Macbeth about. At the end of the act Macbeth reveals that – rather like Klingsor in Wagner’s Parsifal – he has been castrated and when the final act begins he is in a wheelchair.

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Macbeth Act IV (final scene) © Bernd Uhlig

Whilst ‘Patria oppressa’ is sung from offstage by the splendid chorus, Macduff’s wife poisons their children to spare them from an even worse fate at the hands of the Macbeths. The dead children are brought to the front of the stage as Macduff sings ‘Ah, la paterna mano’. On his arrival it is as if Malcolm is at lectern giving a speech. An image of trees rustling in the wind covers the stage and we approach the opera’s denouement. Lady Macbeth has clearly lost her senses and wanders in for ‘Una macchia è qui tuttora!’ clutching a desk lamp on a long cord. She ends up at the sink and cuts one of her wrists. Macbeth is now in a beige uniform and collapses out of his wheelchair and crawls to Lady Macbeth who is not quite dead with the doctor and her servant desperate to save her life. Eventually the Macbeths are bound together with the cord and Lady Macbeth silently taunts Macduff to shoot them but he cannot seem to bring himself to do it. On the walkway above one of the masked children Banquos is seen while there is video of a solitary child (Fleance?) walking through some trees as the curtain falls. Is Warlikowski suggesting that eliminated or not tyrants are always with us, who knows?

Even though she may not be a natural Verdian, Asmik Grigorian was – as expected – a mightily impressive Lady Macbeth. Grigorian used her huge vocal range and all the acting skills she had at her command to explore her unhinged character’s moral depravity. Initially Grigorian brought unexpected glamour to Lady Macbeth’s ruthlessness, so that her ultimate decline was even more pitiable. The highlights of her compelling performance were – as expected – the famous ‘La luce langue’ aria in Act II and her concluding Act IV sleep-walking (or perhaps not here) scene.

I don’t believe I have seen and heard Belarusian baritone Vladislav Sulimsky before and his hangdog Macbeth was an equally fine portrayal and clearly someone cowed by the force of his wife’s vengeful urges. One blood-soaked act led to another until he was a broken man with only a fragile grasp on reality. In the last two acts this Macbeth was clearly someone on a pre-destined path he had absolutely no control over. Sulimsky sang resolutely and – more often than not – eloquently with his best moments being a deeply-affecting ‘Pietà, rispetto, amore’ and the defiance he brought to ‘Mal per me’.

Verdi’s Macbeth is essentially a two-hander and nobody else gets much of a chance to impress. Nevertheless, Tareq Nazmi was an imposing Banquo and his splendid ‘Come dal ciel precipita’ in Act II made me wish Verdi had given the character more to sing since he is murdered soon after. Evan LeRoy Johnson gets even less to do as Malcolm and did the best he could with it. Perhaps some of the loudest applause was for Jonathan Tetelman’s ardent, full-throated account of ‘Ah, la paterno mano’, Macduff’s lament for the death of his children and an expression of his determination to defeat Macbeth. It was full of grief but also suitably rousing and led to the vow he makes with Malcolm to liberate the people from the tyranny of the Macbeths.

Backing up these outstanding singers and the magnificent chorus was Philippe Jordan (replacing an ailing Franz Welser-Möst) on the podium and he appeared to relish the duality of Verdi’s uneven score which veers wildly from demonic impulses to patriotic choruses. Jordan conducted the wonderful Vienna Philharmonic with dynamism, finesse and attention to detail and brought some unexpected subtlety and imaginative touches to his totally authoritative and well-paced account.

Jim Pritchard

Director – Krzysztof Warlikowski
Sets and Costumes – Małgorzata Szczęśniak
Lighting – Felice Ross
Video – Kamil Polak, Denis Guéguin
Choreography – Claude Bardouil
Dramaturgy – Christian Longchamp
Chorus master – Jörn Hinnerk Andresen

Macbeth – Vladislav Sulimsky
Banquo – Tareq Nazmi
Lady Macbeth – Asmik Grigorian
Lady-in-waiting to Lady Macbeth – Catherina Piva
Macduff – Jonathan Tetelman
Malcolm – Evan LeRoy Johnson
Doctor – Aleksei Kulagin
Servant of Macbeth – Grisha Martirosyan
Murderer / Herald – Hovhannes Karapetyan
Apparitions – Soloists of the Sankt Florianer Sängerknaben

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