Was potentially excellent singing marred by ‘smoking’ in Bremen’s Macbeth?

GermanyGermany Verdi, Macbeth: Soloists, Chorus, Extra chorus and Extras of Theater Bremen, Bremer Philharmoniker / Stefan Klingele (conductor). Theater Bremen, 15.3.2024. (DMD)

Theater Bremen’s Macbeth © Jörg Landsberg

Director – Elisabeth Stöppler
Stage design – Thilo Ullrich, Raimund Orfeo Voigt
Costume design – Nicole Pleuler
Lighting design – Christian Kemmetmüller
Dramaturgy – Frederike Krüger, Caroline Scheidegger
Chorus director – Noori Cho

Macbeth – Elias Gyungseok Han
Banquo – Hidenori Inoue
Lady Macbeth – Sarah-Jane Brandon
Dama (Lady Macduff) – Elisa Birkenheier
Macduff – Luis Olivares Sandoval
Malcolm – Ian Spinetti
Servo – Christoph Heinrich
Macduff’s daughters – Carlotta Böhnke, Mina Gutzeit, Asuka Kodama
Fleanzio – Navin Felgendreher

In Elisabeth Stöppler’s imaginative and thought-provoking production, the action took place around and inside a room with solid walls on two sides and large windows, which may also serve as doors, on the other two sides (stage design by Thilo Ullrich and Raimund Orfeo Voigt). The room moved as needed, in all directions left, right, forward and backward, and on a revolve in the round. The movement was achieved efficiently, without disturbing noises or stagehands visibly struggling with heavy sets. The room showed scenes of life at court (Duncan’s visit), private life (the Macduffs) and the murderous machinations perpetrated by the Macbeths – for starters the scene after Duncan’s murder, with the bodies of the late King and the servants draped around the edges of the space. Later, the Macbeths closed the windows from the outside and those inside, their assumed enemies, tried desperately to get out – they screamed, inaudibly, and died. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were mainly outside of that space of society, they were in the grey, dark, harshly lit world, inhabited also by the chorus of witches and by the ghosts of those murdered by the Macbeths. For the final scene, this room had been taken apart, and its parts had been placed flat on the floor. Society in Macbeth’s kingdom was impoverished: the chorus members representing that society were not wearing any trousers. Costumes throughout were contemporary. The contemporary setting of the production was highlighted by the decision to make most of the characters into chain smokers. More on this directorial decision later!

Shakespeare’s story was told very well, with bass Christian Heinrich, slim, tall and with more than shoulder-long reddish hair, as a kind of pivotal chorus-like character, who was in turn the physician, a servant, and a henchman. He rendered some of Shakespeare’s words in impeccable English that would not have been amiss in a Royal Shakespeare Company or Royal National Theatre production.

Attention to detail was as apparent in the music as it was characteristic of the production overall. Each chorus member seemed to have been given or to have developed their own narrative as to character and motivation. The chorus, directed by Noori Cho, demonstrated unity in diversity. Stefan Klingele brought out the nuances of the score very well indeed. Under his baton the music was at times subtle, at times robust, sombre or even near-cheerful, always suitably so. He shaped the orchestra’s different instrumental groups into a differentiated soundscape. His singers were able to rely on his attention to their needs.

Elias Gyungseok Han (Macbeth) and Sarah-Jane Brandon (Lady Macbeth) © Jörg Landsberg

The singers were all from the excellent company of Theater Bremen. While that excellence shone through in all cases, I am sad to say that several of them seemed to be delivering below their usual levels of excellence. My only explanation is that this was due to the impact of showing them smoking. I am not sure what kind of substance was used to create the effect of cigarette smoke, but I could not help feeling that whatever it was affected the performers’ voices adversely. I do not wish to speculate about the reasons why the production insisted on having them smoke but would argue that taking the risk of an adverse impact of a directorial or dramaturgical choice on the singer’s foremost skill, their singing (!), is quite unfair, to say the least, to the singers. It affects their very livelihood! Sarah-Jane Brandon acted with her usual dedication but lacked her usual consistency across the range of her voice, with the lower register sounding more spoken than sung. The voice came into bloom only in the higher passages, and even here she did not command the beauty of tone she had demonstrated as Elisabetta in Don Carlos last season. Elias Gyungseok Han sang Macbeth initially with an abandon of power, with elegant phrasing and a high level of musicality. He was equally at ease with loud and subtle passages, but the voice sounded worn-out before the end. Luis Olivares Sandoval presented Macduff’s aria without some of the burnished quality one has come to expect and admire in his voice. He looked decidedly uncomfortable during the aria. I am genuinely and deeply upset on behalf of these singers!

The singers of Malcolm, Lady Macduff and Banquo were not required to smoke. Ian Spinetti sounded in much fresher voice as Malcolm. Elisa Birkenheier (Lady Macduff) soared beautifully above orchestra and chorus alike. Hidenori Inoue (Banquo) has a convincing, sonorous bass. The audience, quite uncommon for Bremen, did not applaud the main singers’ individual arias at all, or only extremely hesitantly, although Klingele clearly allowed time for applause. At the curtain call the applause was short of enthusiastic but still warm. If only…

Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe

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