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”.
You can have any review automatically translated. Just click on the Translate button,
which you can find in the Google bar above this article.
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.
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.