State Opera South Australia. Her Majesty’s Theatre. 7 Sep 2023
State Opera South Australia’s current production of Verdi’s Macbeth is a visual and aural feast: the costuming, setting, lighting, singing (both solo and ensemble), and orchestra are all first rate, dramatic, and importantly, empathetic to the storyline. The fundamental elements are all there, in abundance, but the production doesn’t land a killer punch because the drama is often wasted through ‘stand and sing’ blocking, particularly in Acts 1 and 2.
State Opera have chosen to present the original 1847 version of Verdi’s masterpiece from his early compositional period, rather than the 1865 revision that was specifically tailored for a French audience. The modifications were numerous: the aria of Lady Macbeth at the beginning of the second act, the dances and the duet between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in the third act, the chorus of the exiles and the final hymn of victory were all changed. Arguably, the 1847 version is more satisfying.
The story of Macbeth is well known and hardly needs recounting. In brief, Macbeth is told by witches that he will soon become King of Scotland. On hearing this, Lady Macbeth - his wife - urges him to take matters into his own hands and expedite the prophesy. So, he murders King Duncan, becomes the new king, and, guilt ridden and becoming increasingly paranoic, he murders even more to protect his position. Similarly conscience-stricken, Lady Macbeth is driven to madness and kills herself as Civil war erupts which results in Macbeth’s own demise. The essence of Shakespeare’s story is preserved in Piave’s libretto, but by necessity the text is pared right down. Even so, the opera comes in at around one hundred and fifty minutes. A major challenge for any production of Macbeth, whether it be of the original play or of the opera, is to clearly dramatize the mental and emotional consequences of unchecked naked ambition. In the opera, the libretto and Verdi’s powerful score only go part way to assist in this. The lion’s share of the challenge rests with the director, but Stuart Maunder tends to have his principal cast members largely stand and deliver presumably in the belief that the text, music and singing of itself is sufficient to convey the psychological drama that should be playing out on stage. On occasion, the transition from one scene to the next was stilted, leading to incongruities such as jolly music overlapping the preceding solemn scene of the murdered king’s body being ceremoniously removed.
The ingredient that is often missing, especially in the first half of the performance, is explicit characterisation, of which the talented cast is more than capable. The opening night audience seemed to be aware of this, and applause was often muted. However, Acts 3 and 4 were a different ball game, and the production truly hit its straps with deservedly enthusiastic responses from the audience.
José Carbó delivers a stoic yet calculating Macbeth. He sings Verdi extremely well, and his energetic and powerful depiction of Macbeth as a self-destructing and obsessed despot in the closing scenes are riveting. His Pietà, rispetto, amore is sublime. As Lady Macbeth, Kate Ladner is at her best in the iconic sleep walking scene, and her rendition of Una macchia è qui tuttora is almost unnerving. Oh, that Carbó and Ladner would unleash similar intensity in Acts 1 and 2!
Pelham Andrews plays an imposing and dignified Banquo and his Studia il passo mio figlio is sung with grave conviction and a sense of foreboding, almost as a portent of his own murder. Impressive.
Paul O’Neill is an impressive Macduff. His O figli, o figli miei … Ah la paterna mano is incredibly touching. We see him lamenting the murder of a king and wrestling with the fact that he must himself avenge that death by murdering a king as well, albeit an illegitimate one. The audience gave him the biggest applause for the night up to that point.
The State Opera Chorus played multiple roles and were at their best as the innocent victims of war as they sang the heart rending Pattria oppressa chorus at the start of Act 4. Every syllable of every word could be clearly heard as if it was being sung by just one person. Credit to Chorus master Anthony Hunt. Their costuming, designed by Rodger Kirk, underlined their downtrodden status as an oppressed people, and Trudy Dalgleish’s lighting complemented the visual imagery superbly, as it did throughout the production. Indeed, the set design (also by Kirk) and the lighting were highlights. The overall design was deceptively simple, but incredibly commanding, versatile, and effective. The apparition of the parade of kings before Macbeth was especially effective, with the imposing movable columns that comprised the essence of the set being used to mask the ghostly spectres. Genius really.
Finnegan Downie Dear conducted the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra with clarity. Of course, as an audience member one is always aware of the sound that emerges from the orchestra pit, but it shouldn’t always be the primary focus. It needs to complement the action, rather than being a driving or motivating force itself. That is how he conducted. He understands the intent of the poetry of the libretto, and how Verdi’s score draws out the meaning. When it was appropriate that the music take centre stage, Finnegan Downie Dear unleashed the forces of the ASO with vigour without losing musicality.
This Macbeth is a co-production with the West Australian Opera. It was first performed in Perth in 2019, and was to be performed in Adelaide in 2020, but COVID ended that plan. Finally, three years later Adelaide audience get to see Macbeth put to the sword. Good things are worth waiting for!
When: 7 to 16 Sep
Where: Her Majesty’s Theatre