Macbeth in Melbourne – singing made the show

MACBETH IN MELBOURNE

The young Verdi was not an innovator. At the very beginning of his career, he seemed quite content to pick up the form as he had found it, happy to run with the traditions established and perfected by the likes of Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini – a formula built on “numbers”: aria, rondo, cabaletta, stretta, ritornello, concertato. Or, as the writer Julian Mitchell has described it, “This bit, then that bit, then another bit”.

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Macbeth by Giuseppe Verdi

Macbeth: Simon Meadows; Lady Macbeth: Helena Dix; Banquo: Adrian Tamburini; Macduff: Samuel Sakker; Dama (Lady in waiting): Elanor Greewood; Malcolm: Robert MacFarlane; Doctor: Alex Pokryshevsky; Apparition: Jane Magao; Messenger:  Darcy Caroll; Conductor: Greg Hocking; Director: Bruce Beresford.

Melbourne Opera, Tuesday May 18, 2021, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne.

 

 MUSIC  *4*
 DIRECTION  *1*

The first of his Shakespeare-based operas, Macbeth, premiered during his “galley years”, the sixteen-year novitiate during which he rose from hired gun to legitimate phenomenon. The 1847 version of Macbeth shares much of the formulaic structure of his other early works, prior to the innovations of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata. Eighteen years after its premiere, and with those middle-period masterpieces under his belt, he returned to Macbeth, and his substantial revisions for its 1865 Paris premiere saw him apply many of these innovations. Sadly, the critics didn’t buy it, and after a modest run of performances, the work quickly faded into obscurity, not returning to favor until the mid-20th century.

FRANKENSTEINING

For its second collaboration with venerated Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford after its 2018 production of Rossini’s Otello, Melbourne Opera has opted to combine elements of both the 1847 and 1865 versions into the one production. We’re not convinced that Frankensteining the two scores is either respectful or effective, and the production did little to assuage my fears. Somebody somewhere clearly wants to keep the cake they’re eating, as it were, since we suspect that Verdi’s own intentions are infinitely better served by offering either of the two distinct versions in toto, each as its own pure beast, rather than dancing on the Maestro’s intentions by mixing things that were never meant to be mixed.

But what of the job done on stage?

Simon Meadows was in fine voice throughout the evening and commanded the stage every time he was on it, vocally and physically. His is not the cavernous Verdi baritone of a Piero Cappuccilli or Renato Bruson, but he has tone and power enough, and notwithstanding an uneven “Pietà, rispetto, amore”, he gave a fine account of the demanding title role.

Helena Dix’s dedication to a pristine bel canto sound had us worried that she would not find the “ugly” vocals that Verdi demanded of his ideal Lady Macbeth. But with both “La luce langue” and the sleepwalking scene (“Una macchia è qui tuttora”) Dix deftly exploited her passaggio to find some suitably nasty noises. The consistency that Verdi demanded was absent, though; she sang everything else altogether too beautifully, but she nevertheless took the audience with her to the very end.

Adrian Tamburini (Banquo) gifted us a full, sonorous Verdi basso, with powerful notes at either end of his range and the kind of legato one can only pray for in this kind of repertoire. Sam Sakker (Macduff) made the most of what is little more than an aria on legs, although he was a little rough on opening night. Robert MacFarlane (Malcolm) managed to impress with even less time on stage, thanks to a full-throated contribution to “La patria tradita”.

Greg Carroll’s set design was suitably foreboding, although somewhat impractical, it seems, given the inordinately long scene changes.

There were also some fabrication issues – when you can see the join between the timber and the styrofoam, and the castor wheels beneath the witches’ cauldron, a judicious word to the scenery workshop might be in order. Any additional issues were deftly concealed by Rob Sowinski’s moody, atmospheric lighting. The Melbourne Opera Chorus were in hearty voice, and the orchestra overcame more than a few bum notes on opening night to nevertheless give a solid account of the patchwork score. Conductor Greg Hocking kept a brisk pace, clearly anxious to get the evening over in short order.

Sadly, the production’s biggest drawcard was also its biggest drawback. I’d very much like to offer my thoughts on Bruce Beresford’s direction of the show, but the truth is that we didn’t actually see any.

Beresford’s take on the show was defiantly old-school – stone walls, chainmail, capes with fur collars, ring belts, swords, goblets, and so on… all of which is perfectly legitimate of course, but he clearly thought that the opera could be left to speak entirely for itself within that setting. It didn’t… it couldn’t, because there isn’t a piece of theatrical writing in human history that can be left to steer itself without a helmsman. For all his experience, and his status as one of Australia’s greatest filmmakers, Beresford’s direction was conspicuous by its absence. Blocking for the chorus consisted almost entirely of stand & deliver semicircles, and for the principles, of standing downstage center and just singing. A costumed concert.

A landfill’s worth of emotional & behavioral beats, actions, and objectives were left wholly unexplored… emotional dynamics, story turns, character nuances, and even basic stagecraft, were all absent. No offstage knocking for Banquo and Macduff’s entrance to Macbeth’s castle, no sign of the “stridere del gufo” of which Lady M speaks, and why was the royal throne sitting in Macbeth’s castle before he’d even become king? The singers floundered, wandering aimlessly back and forth across the front of the stage, with nothing to do but sing. If the emotional and behavioral landscape were as compellingly choreographed as the sword fights, or as well-drilled as the music, we’d have had a bloody good show on our hands. In the end, it was the singing that made the show. For some, this is enough. For those of us who demand some theatre in our theatre, it was a frustrating evening.

The production’s final performance on May 26 will be live-streamed to VR headsets, in what Melbourne Opera is claiming as an Australian first. If you’re hungry for some strong singing, and you have access to the appropriate technology, we’d urge you to tune in. We doubt you’ll be disappointed by what you hear.

David Meadows
5 1 vote
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David Meadows

Reviewer

David is a career performing arts practitioner based in Melbourne. He aspires to transcendence in his artistic endeavours. When it comes to opera, he has very little patience with those in professional practice who attempt anything but the same.

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Warrick Dawson
Warrick Dawson
24 days ago

I can only agree David. I was at the dress rehearsal and those with me all agreed about the “lack of direction”. The singing was glorious as you mentioned.

Wilhelm
Wilhelm
23 days ago

“1 star” for staging ???? It’s a traditional staging and the reviewer somewhat disparagingly calls it “old school” with “stone walls, chainmail, capes with fur collars, ring belts, swords, goblets, and so on…” Surely that’s the way it should be! Besides, “Just singing” is not enough for him. I have a soft spot for Verdi’s “Macbeth” and “just singing” is just what the opera calls for. A staging in the style of his fellow countryman Barrie Kosky, which requires the chorus to be in constant motion, actually kills the opera. He uses the word “show” several times and that is… Read more »

David Meadows
David Meadows
23 days ago
Reply to  Wilhelm

> “the reviewer calls it somewhat derogatory “old school”. There is nothing inherently derogatory about the phrase “old school”, and certainly not in this particular usage of it when one considers that the review immediately follows it up with the qualification that such a staging is “perfectly legitimate”. > “That’s the way it should be!” This review contains no imputation to the contrary. It merely states the facts of the staging being traditional. > “just singing” is exactly what the opera is asking for. Even the most traditional, libretto-faithful production engages in blocking to serve the text and music. Look… Read more »

Wilhelm
Wilhelm
22 days ago
Reply to  David Meadows

This is quite an answer you give me and, of course, you are right. I did not see the performance (as we call it in Europe instead of the show) and cannot judge if the “necessary” stage action is as absent/lacking as you mention.
I hope to see the streaming of the opera this week and I’ll give you a full reply afterwards. This streaming seems not to be for VR headsets only, but also for computer: https://watch.melbournedigitalconcerthall.com/#/item/69037
Ticket 34 AUD 

Wilhelm
Wilhelm
16 days ago
Reply to  Wilhelm

I saw the streamed performance and was impressed by the vocal quality of the performers. It was great singing and as you say, not great acting. But who cares about the details if a singer is allowed to sing without disturbance, without the attention of the public being diverted away by videos and other distractions. In our present opera world, devastated by corrupt visions of crazy directors, the real opera lover sees a traditional staging as a gift from heaven. If a tenor is allowed to sing his aria without a ballet dancer jumping around the stage, or without given… Read more »