Covent Garden’s Macbeth is back in all its bloody glory.
Phyllida Lloyd’s evocative staging of Verdi’s first foray into the dramatic world of Shakespeare made a welcome return to the Covent Garden stage, after only a three year gap. Aided and abetted by Anthony Ward’s atmospheric sets – dark and claustrophobic, yet thrown into sharp relief by splashes of red and iridescent gold – by and large Lloyd lets the narrative unfold naturally, without any interference. But when she does intervene the results never detract from the storytelling, but rather enhance it. In Lloyd’s eyes these witches are no passive observers. With their red turbans and Frida Kahlo-esque monobrows, they become omnipresent manipulators of the action and characters on stage, driving the action forward to its inexorable conclusion.
It’s as though Lloyd is saying that the opera’s protagonists are mere pawns in the witches’ grand plan, and while it may not be what Verdi had it mind, it makes for a compelling theatrical backdrop to what takes place. The destructive nature of war, and the notion that all human life is fragile, permeates the action, which comes across freshly minted under revival director Daniel Dooner’s expert guidance.
It helped that he had a superb cast at his disposal. In 2018 Anna Netrebko shared the role of Lady Macbeth with Italian soprano, Anna Pirozzi, and whilst the latter may not share the kind of celebrity status the Russian/Austrian soprano does, she made a welcome return to the House, and rightly dominated proceedings. Notoriously difficult to sing, some sopranos are happier in the declamatory passages of the role than the more introverted ones, and vice versa, but Pirozzi was equally at home, and sensationally assured, in both. Her opening ‘Vieni t’affretta’ revealed her faultless technique, and she went on to thrill with plenty of penetrating high notes in the ensuing cabaletta, ‘Or tutti, sorgete’. Later, in the sleepwalking scene, she honed down her instrument to the barest of whispers, floating a string of pianissimos which held the audience spellbound. The House went wild at the final curtain and rewarded her with a thunderous ovation – and rightly so.
Simon Keenlyside returned as Macbeth, a role he last sang here in 2011. The voice has darkened over the last decade, and whilst it may lack the cut and thrust of more traditional Verdi baritones, his pointing of the text and depiction of a murderer haunted by his actions, more than compensated for the occasional lack of vocal heft. His third act lament. ‘Pietà, Rispetto, Amore’ was beautifully voiced, and capped an intelligent, three dimensional interpretation.
“The destructive nature of war, and the notion that all human life is fragile, permeates the action…”
As his trusted confidante, Banquo, Austrian bass Günther Groissböck was luxury casting beyond one’s wildest dreams. His dark, inky, yet supremely elegant voice moulded Verdi’s phrases sensitively, and he produced some of the most glorious singing of the evening – it’s just a shame he has so little to sing. Arguably the leading Ochs (Der Rosenkavalier), Gurnemanz (Parsifal) and King Marke (Tristan und Isolde) before the public today, we deserve to hear him in one of these roles at Covent Garden.
Similarly, Verdi gives Macduff very little to sing, which is a shame as David Junghoon Kim revealed a bright, well-schooled tenor, even throughout the range. We need to hear more from him as well. All the singers in the supporting roles stood out, testament not only to the calibre of this year’s Jette Parker intake, but the depth and quality of casting we sometimes take for granted on Bow Street but is always spot on these days.
In the pit Daniele Rustioni conducted a scrupulous account of the score. Early Verdi is notoriously tricky to get right – in the wrong hands the orchestral accompaniments can sound banal and trite – yet the Italian maestro succeeded in making the score sound fresh, vivid, and inventive. Balance between stage and pit was impeccable, and the orchestra responded with attentive, beautifully sculpted playing. The rumour factory has been in overdrive recently as to who will succeed musical director Antonio Pappano when he steps down in 2024. Rustioni’s name keeps coming up as a potential successor – and if this was his pitch for the top job, he will surely have passed with flying colours.