The 32-year old Verdi was taking a risk when he wrote Macbeth for the Teatro della Pergola in Florence in 1846. All of his operas until then had been grounded in fact or history, and indulging in the genere fantastico (‘fantastical genre’) had its dangers when at the time it was far from universally loved.
In the event, however, the premieres were so warmly received that the Florentines soon awarded Verdi his own gold crown. Macbeth became the composer’s favourite of all of his operas, and in 1865 he revised it to produce a French version. That was less popular at the time, but from the middle of the twentieth century onwards has tended to be the version of choice, albeit usually performed in Italian.
Phyllida Lloyd’s 2002 production for the Royal Opera, revived here by Daniel Dooner, faces all of the challenges that confronted the original in making depictions of witches and ghosts feel both enchanting and believable, and, as a general rule, it overcomes them well.
No literal setting is created for the drama, but all of the required elements are interwoven into a concept that never grounds the action in a specific century. Anthony Ward’s set consists of a large box-like area from which the back wall frequently appears and disappears. When it is present, as for the Macbeths’ bed chamber, it creates a dark, repressive area that could almost pass for a contemporary hotel bedroom, thus handing the pair’s machinations a sense of ruthless modernity. The claustrophobic atmosphere also suggests that, once the couple have started on their power hungry quest, there is no hope of escape.
The back wall comes away to create the forest where the witches dwell, or the castle where great pageantry takes place, all against the backdrop of a storm-lit sky. That we witness ‘imaginary’ scenes such as the show of Banquo’s descendants as kings (bright golden men riding large golden horses) through a frame, helps to make the images feel mystical rather than chintzy or crass.
The sense of inevitability is also highlighted by having the black robed, red turbaned witches (seemingly reminiscent of Jan van Eyck’s self-portrait in the National Gallery) involved throughout as they fulfil their own prophecies. A witch holds aloft the crown to place on Macbeth’s head, and when Banquo is killed another helps Fleance to escape. One actually presents Macduff’s children to Macbeth to be slaughtered, and at the end the group join the armies of Macduff and Malcolm in brandishing branches from Birnam Wood and surrounding the King. In Siegfried Wotan tells Erda that the Norns weave what the future will be, but have no means to influence it. That is clearly not the case with these witches, which makes for some uncomfortable viewing because it suggests it may even be their own plan they are fulfilling. When we see the witch save Fleance, revealing such a dispassionate face as she does so, it strikes us that she intends the father to die as much as the son to be saved.
Lloyd’s choice regarding the witches is a sound one, but it feels part and parcel of an approach in which every prop or feature is designed to say something. Macbeth’s crown is stored in a cage before he and Macduff’s final fight occurs in a golden box-like contraption that feels like a larger version, thus showing how the King has become imprisoned by his own lust for power. The deaths that lead to Macbeth’s ascent are also proclaimed loud and clear as we see the former Thane of Cawdor crucified at the back of the stage and then Duncan’s body laid out before the masses. The accumulative effect of all of these things, however, is that every move seems designed to make a specific point. This is not conducive to feeling that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth operate within a natural and free-flowing context.
One thing that does not feel contrived, however, is a dream sequence in Act III in which the Macbeths picture themselves with children, suggesting that their lust for power derives from lacking the fulfilment that comes from having a family. It works because, in this context, it is not saying that childlessness justifies their actions, but that family relationships facilitate a depth of feeling that cannot be met by anything else. Macduff actually says in Act IV that he is unable to have revenge on Macbeth because he has no children to dispatch, while the cloud formation on the backdrop that vaguely resembles a rocking horse stands as a reminder of what the Macbeths are missing out on. They may feel the absence of children in their lives particularly acutely because the original Shakespeare play at least makes clear that Lady Macbeth once bore them.
If the staging is generally effective, the vocal performances stand as something special. Anna Netrebko is a tremendous Lady Macbeth, with her rich, full-blooded and deep voice imbuing every fibre of her being with cold, calculating ruthlessness. In ‘Vieni! t’affretta!’ there is a slight tendency to overact and a possibly related tendency to harshen her sound, but there is no denying the absolute strength of her performance. In fact, in ‘Una macchia è qui tuttora!’, where her lower register proves especially assured, we do actually feel something for the character, in spite of everything she has done.
If Netrebko’s Lady Macbeth seems to be an unequivocally ambitious driver, this does not make Željko Lučić’s Macbeth a mere vassal of his wife, and with his rich, focused, seemingly unflashy and yet immensely powerful baritone, he creates a deeply multi-faceted figure. He is not merely a subservient husband, or an emotionally detached power seeker or simply a deluded madman, but rather an intriguing combination of all three. As Banquo, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s voice is strong with a pleasing smoky tinge, while Yusif Eyvazov’s Macduff excels in his Act IV aria, ‘Ah, la paterna mano’. The supporting cast is also excellent, with all three Jette Parker Young Artists, Konu Kim (Malcolm), Francesca Chiejina (Lady-in-Waiting) and Simon Shibambu (Doctor), standing out in particular.
In the pit, Sir Antonio Pappano does wonders with Verdi’s rich and enigmatic score. After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s duet contains moments that could almost be mistaken for an innocent love song, while the murder of Banquo is immediately followed by the joyous coronation festivities. Pappano picks up on all of the associated nuances by tempering a strong sense of sweep with rather more unsettling undertones. The result is a production that is dramatically strong, and musically something exceptional.
Anna Pirozzi sings Lady Macbeth on 2 and 10 April, and David Junghoon Kim plays Macduff on 2, 7 and 10 April.
Macbeth will be broadcast live to selected cinemas in the UK and worldwide on 4 April, while some cinemas will also show encore screenings over subsequent days. For details of participating venues visit the Royal Opera House Live Cinema Season website.