159 years ago, almost to the day, Verdi, who paid meticulous personal attention to the rehearsal and acting of this opera, wrote to a friend: “Note that the principal pieces of the opera are two: the duet between Lady Macbeth and her husband and the sleepwalking scene. If these numbers fail, the opera will be a flop; and they must absolutely not be sung but acted and declaimed with a very veiled voice. There is no other way of doing them.” The directors of this production, originally Richard Jones and revived on tour by Geoffrey Dolton, did not take heed of his warning.
Svetlana Sozdateleva, as Lady Macbeth, has a powerful, sometimes ferocious, voice but was not up to the role and she was alas the weakest link. The highest notes were not just uncomfortable but out of her range. In the duet Verdi referred to, she never projected a sense of the contemptuous, chilling and cynical hold that she has over her husband, propelling him coldbloodedly into the series of crimes to gain power. In this respect therefore the first piece stipulated by Verdi failed. The sleepwalking scene, however, was vividly done, with Lady Macbeth obsessively pulling on pair after pair of white gloves to cover up her bloodied hands, only to discard them into an industrial washing machine.
Stephen Gadd, as Macbeth, however, was in full command from the outset and got even better, dramatically and vocally achieving all that was required in the role. This was so not least at the finale when he meets his own end, exhausted, bitter and resigned, defiantly beckoning forward his own executioners in a scene that repeats and finally explains the opera’s opening tableau. Notable also were Ilya Bannik‘s strongly sung Banquo and Stefano Ferrari‘s equally vibrant Macduff.
There are some remarkable elements of black humour in Jones’ production that grip, provoking a smile at the macabre daftness then freezing at the realisation of something much more brutal and chilling. But the decision to include the ballet music in Act III was a mistake. Dramatically there was no point to it, it held up the action, ratcheted down the tension and is, musically, undistinguished.
This is deep-fried Mars bar Scotland, where the weapon of choice for a shortbread-tin tartan kilted army is a woodsman’s axe rather than a claymore, a hatchet rather than a dagger. Ultz‘s stage designs have a bleak, tacky starkness. Macbeth’s castle is an undecorated breezeblock eyesore. The three witches are three generations of the Glaswegian Virgin, Mother and Crone: bolshie short-skirted teenagers, slacks and body warmer peroxide mams and shapeless babushka grannies. Their cavern is a caravan appropriately an elderly Sprite – from which they emerge like synchronised swimmers. They cast their spells over a saucepan brewing on an exploding gas cooker.
The chief contributor to the evening’s enjoyment was the music and this production is distinguished by superb orchestral playing, especially the brass, and the Glyndebourne chorus singing with it usual precision. The brilliant 24-year-old conductor Robin Ticciati, who debuted to acclaim with Die Fledermaus on tour last year, has now taken over from Edward Gardner as Glyndebourne on Tour’s music director. He showed a subtle understanding of Verdi’s style, propelling the rhythms without ever hurrying them, and was in total command.
At times directors and designers can come up with something that’s quirky but works – adding a new dimension to our understanding but this was not one of them. There were no Calixto Bieito excesses, but Verdi has not been well served here.
Macbeth plays at Stoke-on-Trent, Regent Theatre Royal 28 November & 1 December and London, Sadler’s Wells 5 & 8 December 2007