MACBETH UNDERWORLD, ‘Opéra sur een livret en huit chapitres de Frédéric Boyer d’après Macbeth de William Shakespeare’. Opera by Pascal Dusapin. Composition assignment of La Monnaie and l’Opéra-Comique. Attended performance: La Monnaie, 20 September 2019 (world premiere).

Lady Macbeth: Magdalena Kožená
Macbeth: Georg Nigl
Three Weird Sisters: Ekaterina Lekhina, Lilly Jorstad, Christel Loetzsch
Ghost: Kristinn Sigmundsson
Porter / Hekate: Graham Clark
Child: Elyne Maillard / Naomi Tapiola
Archiluth:  Christian Rivet

Symfonieorkest van de Munt
Muzikale leiding: Alain Altinoglu
Regie:  Thomas Jolly




Macbeth, William Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, was published in 1623 and remains one of his most famous works to this day. Three witches predict that one day the brave and loyal general Macbeth will be king of Scotland. Blinded by his ambition and spurred on by his wife, he kills King Duncan and takes his place on the throne. But then feelings of guilt and his self-brewed paranoia get the better of him. His reign of terror provokes a civil war, with death and madness as the inevitable fate, from which Lady Macbeth cannot escape either.

The French composer Pascal Dusapin (Nancy, 29 May 1955) asked Frédéric Boyer, a Shakespeare expert, to write a new libretto: the title Underworld stands for the nightmare in which the past penetrates the present.

Belcanto lover leaves his comfort zone

The music of Dusapin takes some getting used to for an old fossil belcanto lover. It’s undeniably modern, which may not come as a surprise, but it doesn’t belong to an “official” school like serialism or minimalism. Perhaps it’s best compared to Edgar Varèse, who Dusapin intensely admires. Of course, the composition was replete with difficult changes of rhythm, which a contemporary composer owes to himself: 7/8, 3/4, 4/4 (yes, that one too!), 1/8, all of which turned it into a colourful rhythmic spectacle. In this opera, Dusapin threw in a new trick: the long to very long note in which the singer himself may determine the rhythm with which he pronounces/sings the text. There was also the 20th-century custom of having texts sung in a rhythm that clashes sharply with the natural rhythm of the language. As a recognized non-authority in the field of contemporary music (if only we had kept up with the times!), thoughts of Wagner and New Age and especially impressions of film music forced themselves on us. Of course, we could not expect “Parigi O Cara”-like euphoric moments, but Dusapin is absolutely captivating through his violent post-apocalyptic, expressive attacks on the mind that are completely in line with the dark Macbeth texts on which his music is composed. In short, grandfather was satisfied and felt very up-to-date now that, after several fruitless attempts, he had finally joined Today’s People.

“Macbeth est fou”

Lady Macbeth was performed by Magdalena Kožená. This Czech mezzo-soprano made her breakthrough in the 2000s with a repertoire ranging from Monteverdi to Janáček. During the 2018-2019 season alone, she was singing Phèdre in Hippolyte et Aricie (Rameau), Das Lied von der Erde (Mahler) and the Johannes-Passion (Bach). Kozená is a clear, fairly light, solid mezzo-soprano that fits in well with this score, which differs from the usual characterisation of Lady Macbeth. Dusapin provides “the Lady”, as she is called in distinguished opera circles when it comes to Verdi’s Lady Macbeth, with soft, sensitive tones and a certain tenderness. Of the lyrics that were put in her mouth we couldn’t understand a word, but that shouldn’t be a problem for Today’s People. We didn’t take great pains to pursue it any further. Kozená gave a penetrating and ominous interpretation of her role in this lugubrious gothic opera, in which the damned couple is doomed to obsessively relive their tragedy.

The Austrian baritone Georg Nigl is the house baritone of composer Pascal Dusapin. He has performed roles in Dusapin’s operas Penthesilea and Passion before, and he served the baritone in Dusapin’s song cycle in O Mensch! For Dusapin it was obvious that he wanted Georg Nigl for the title role: “The filling in of the role of Macbeth did not cost me any headaches, it had to be Georg Nigl. This is my fifth production with him, and he can handle anything from extreme expressiveness to tenderness and complete insanity. The description on his score is simply ‘Macbeth est fou’ – Macbeth is crazy. That’s all Georg needs,” says Dusapin. And indeed Nigl, with his intensive, fresh baritone, put a perfectly disturbed Macbeth on stage: just what the doctor ordered.

Although after Andrea Breth’s wretched and miserably failed Macbeth at DNO in 2015, any other attempt to bring this tragedy to the stage is a welcome relief, this production by De Munt deserves an extra compliment. We certainly experienced an extremely fascinating evening, albeit one that was very gloomy. “Poignant” is the right term. An unmistakable characteristic of a world premiere is that it cannot be made more modern than it already is, if you know what we mean.

So not only praise for the composer, but also for director Thomas Jolly, whom we still know as director of Eliogabalo at DNO in 2017. Jolly showed us a number of gloomy and nightmarish tableaux vivants (prologue and eight scenes) built against a backdrop of rotating creepy trees, with “uplifting” names such as “Come, dark night”, “Go, cursed spot!”. The doomed couple is accompanied by a sometimes funny and sometimes evil group of sisters (the Weird Sister; the first sister sang so incredibly high that we feared for our spectacle lenses) who invoke the dark past. They were accompanied by the excellent women’s choir with their king Hecate. There is the Gatekeeper, who watches over the entrance to the Underworld, of course the cursed couple Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, a phantom, a child, and the three strange sisters, who remind us of Macbeth’s witches. A hypnotic world full of strange creatures, spectres and ghosts. In other words: the world of our own cloudy souls.

Conductor Alain Altinoglu and the Symphony Orchestra of La Monnaie knew exactly how to handle the complexity of Dusapin’s score, which was performed with extreme precision. The visual and auditory icy waves were considerably more than the sum of their parts.

Once again, we have our own unique, thank God not updated, thank God video-free, excellent Macbeth.

Olivier Keegel
(published 22 September 2019)

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Olivier Keegel


Chief Editor since 2019. Does not need much more than Verdi, Bellini and Donizetti. Wishes to resuscitate Tito Schipa and Fritz Wunderlich. Certified unmasker of directors' humbug.

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Elise Friede
Elise Friede
1 year ago

Excellent review! Thank you.