Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Macbeth @ Royal Opera House, London

It can be interesting to re-visit a production that you’ve seen before, let alone one you’ve actually put pen to paper about. Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Macbeth was last seen in 2006 and my review then painted a generally positive impression of how the score and its dramatic impetus were faithfully transferred to the stage, albeit with the addition of deft twists in the staging. It could be that knowing the overall conception, my attention much of the time rested on details: the letter from Macbeth to his Lady being hand-delivered by a witch, also that it is a witch who contrives Fleance’s escape from the scene of Banquo’s murder. The point that Lloyd’s original direction makes and that Harry Fehr maintained in his this revival is that the witches are far from mere sayers who predict Macbeth’s fate, they act to ensure its inevitability. As an aside it should be noted that this keeps the action moving for the most part, and only occasionally, with the last of the apparitions, for example, did the conception feel laboured in its realisation. The broader visual conception and its motif of the gilded cage that simultaneously signifies the Macbeths’ elevation, his internal emotional entrapment and their ultimate self-destruction continues to serve the production well.

Musically and dramatically, the present run scores a couple of palpable hits over its predecessor in the casting of Macbeth and his Lady. Simon Keenlyside and Liudmyla Monastyrska are believable from the first as a couple, yet it is immediately clear that she wears the trousers in their castle. For all that though, Keenlyside’s portrayal of Macbeth thrives on the judicious mix of robust acting and subtlety which he mirrors carefully in his tonally-focussed yet nuanced vocal delivery. In terms of vocal size, his might not be the most big-boned, commanding Macbeth around, yet in common with everything Keenlyside approaches it is intelligently conceived and sung and, therefore, not without ample depth to the character.Liudmyla Monastyrska’s Lady is a portrayal not easily forgotten. Sure, the sheer heft of her voice means that one cannot fail to notice her presence in each of her tour-de-force scenes, but once again the success of her realisation of the part was in the details be they the apposite emphasis of particular words in Macbeth’s letter from the blasted heath, her sneered asides to Macbeth as he rails at Banquo’s all-too-flesh-and-blood ghost or the paring down of her tone to a fragile thread for much of the sleep-walking scene. Macbeth’s downfall might have been great through a failing in his vaulting ambition, but Lady Macbeth’s fall from grace registered with as great, if not more weight. Lastly, note should be made of the vocal partnership that Keenlyside and Monastyrska made of their roles, singing with awareness of the other to ensure they both carried well in the House.

Every plot needs a contrast of characters, and Macbeth’s antithesis is found in Banquo. Morally upright, as honest as the day is long and a worthy heroic soldier, the character’s die seems cast moments after he enters alongside Macbeth. Raymond Aceto brought gravitas to the role in vocal terms whilst advocating the inherent beauty of Verdi’s rich writing for the bass voice, most obviously in his Act II aria ‘Come dal ciel precipita’, strikingly staged as a prelude to his murder in a castle chapel. Dimitri Pittas proved to be much weaker casting as Macduff than Joseph Calleja in 2006, the latter one of the most focussed of the singers in that cast. Pittas though brought heroic gusto even if his tone seemed at times ill-supported.

The smaller solo contributions made by the Jette Parker Young Artists continue to underline the valuable part they play in Royal Opera productions: Elisabeth Meister’s Lady-in-Waiting and Lukas Jakobski’s Doctor neatly counterpointed Lady Macbeth’s neurotic downward spiral of the sleepwalking scene with restrained sensibility. Steven Ebel’s Malcolm possessed presence enough to make his contribution matter.

Much of the drama in the opera comes from the choruses, where Verdi balances massed female witches against the mixed voices of the oppressed Scots. Renato Balsadonna’s preparation of both sets of forces was evidently more purposeful and rhythmically aware than before, making for a much improved experience. The Royal Opera Orchestra played decently under Antonio Pappano’s direction, though just occasionally he could have firmed up the overall attack, even if instrumental voices were well blended and moulded with a decent sense of Verdian dynamism.

The performance on 13 June 2011 will be broadcast live into over 450 cinemas around the world. Full details are to be found at cinema.roh.org.uk/content/macbeth

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