Verdi - Macbeth

ONP Bastille, Friday April 10 2009

Conductor: Teodor Currentzis. Production, sets and costumes: Dmitri Cherniakov. Video: Leonid Zalessky/Ninja Films. Lighting: Gleb Filshtinsky. Macbeth: Dimitris Tiliakos. Banco: Ferruccio Furlanetto. Lady Macbeth: Violeta Urmana. Dama di Lady Macbeth: Letitia Singleton. Macduff: Stefano Secco. Malcolm: Alfredo Nigro. Duncan: Jean-Christophe Bouvet. Medico/Domestico: Yuri Kissin. Un sicario: Jian-hong Zhao. Chorus and orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris.

Reviews of the ONP’s new production of Macbeth have been mixed, though of all those I’ve read only one hated everything: staging and singing and music. On Friday night there were some isolated outbreaks of booing, but at the end the reception was loudly enthusiastic and to me it was just about as good an evening of Verdi as you are likely to get these days (unless of course you’re a Met regular hooked on Zeffirelli).

Violeta Urmana was an unexpected name to find on the season’s schedule as Lady Macbeth. She’s nothing like Callas or Verrett and isn’t ideal in the role, of course: her voice is warm, round and, overall, beautiful. She hasn’t the D-flat or whatever it’s supposed to be at the end of the “spot” aria, but neither did Christa Ludwig under Böhm and as far as I know no-one complained much about Ludwig, so we weren’t complaining about Urmana on Friday. She had most of the other notes (so long as she didn’t linger over the top ones), a surprising degree of agility and decent trills.

Her Macbeth, Dimitris Tiliakos, is perhaps a touch lightweight for the part and was wavering to begin with, but firmed up as the evening went on and made up in acting skill for any trifling vocal deficiency.

Whenever I hear Stefano Secco I wonder why so much fuss is made about Villazon. Secco is an excellent Verdi tenor with more volume and overall éclat than Villazon and less histrionics. I wonder if it’s because he’s small and not especially handsome that Secco isn’t yet more famous, but then Villazon isn’t a giant and famously looks like Mr Bean. Whatever: the longer we can keep Secco in Paris (rather than having New York monopolise him as a Met star) the better, so, again, we aren’t complaining*.

Furlanetto was dark and cavernous and right, Letitia Singleton was a convincingly timorous Dama and the rest of the cast were up to the usual rest-of-cast standards.

As I remember, I complained that in Don Carlos Teodor Currentzis’s conducting bordered on mannerism. In Macbeth I found him perfect. This was Verdi exactly as I like him: fast but accurate with a wide dynamic range and lots of bounce - but also beautiful shaping and deep feeling when required: the “Patria oppressa” chorus was a marvel. The orchestra was on top form. As in Don Carlos, Currentzis's speed and drive had him occasionally losing the singers, the chorus especially, but – I’ll say it again – we weren’t complaining. I lapped it up.

Having seen this production, I now regret having missed Cherniakov’s Onegin earlier in the season. His Macbeth (from Novosibirsk) is excellently directed, consistent and thought-provoking, the cursor hovering somewhere between intriguing and, occasionally, puzzling. His central couple are more arriviste than royal. Lady Macbeth, an efficient society hostess in trousers and glasses, eggs her tormented husband patiently (and wearyingly) on to greater things. At first it’s hard to place them: are we in some sort of mafia society in which they are advancing? Is it a world of Russian-style oligarchs and shifty politicians? Or, as in the end, once he’s king, Macbeth does pull on trousers with a red stripe down the side, one of Europe’s more “middle-class” royal families – the Belgians or Danes, say? The stiflingly enclosed society in which they move is reminiscent of Peter Grimes or even the recent Albert Herring, and also of a Coliseum production I remember in which the witches were Edinburgh matrons in Miss Jean Brodie hats.

That Albert Herring was also brought to mind by the staging. The production starts with the curtain looking like a giant Google Earth or Mappy screen. We hover over the rooftops of a small provincial town. At the opening and between scenes, at the click of a mouse, we home in (the word is apt here) on one of the two sets. And as the action turns rough, the town is first set alight and, finally, reduced to smoking ruins.

The heath, outside the castle, the witches’ cave, the border and the battlefield are all one oppressive town square, with tall, narrow, grey houses (little boxes, little boxes – and they all look just the same, except that their windows are of different sizes) and video storm clouds rolling menacingly above. The local community (I’m tempted to say “the Borough”), in costumes ranging from the 20s to the present day in a palette of greys and beiges, are ever present, in and out of their houses. There are no witches – their chorus is sung by the women of the town and it isn’t clear if we’re to believe that what we hear is their sentiment or simply Macbeth’s imagination. Similarly, there are no apparitions, and when Macbeth reacts, he is laughed at by the locals. Banco’s murder takes place invisibly in a sudden movement of the crowd. The same square sees the people abandoning their homes to flee, and Macduff sings his aria from his child’s cot.

The second set is a large, austere room with a fire blazing at the rear, some panelling, and high-backed chairs around a table. The “Google Earth” application comes nearer and nearer to the rooftop, veers to a window at the front of the house and is blacked out, and we find ourselves in the room - a shoebox affair that unfortunately captured some (but fortunately by no means all) of the volume – where the Macbeths play out their intimate drama: in this production, for example, once the letter has been read out by Macbeth’s voice over speakers, the lights go up in the grim drawing room and Lacy Macbeth sings Vieni! T’afretta! to her husband, urging him to act. Here too Lady Macbeth entertains, in both senses of the word, Duncan, played as a crashing bore in slacks and a sweater fawned on by his court, and later the strait-laced local nobs: in the brindisi, she appears with a top hat and performs conjuring tricks for them all. When sleep walking, she will try to use the same hat and its magic to remove the spot from her hand. And from here, Macbeth observes the battle from the window before the crowd surges in to attack him. He is left alone as – a striking coup de théâtre – the walls of the room are literally reduced, with deafening thuds, to rubble and dust around him.

All of this is, as I mentioned above, intriguing, beautifully directed and powerfully acted, and with the sound cast and excellent music-making in the pit, made for a very satisfying evening. I will from now on be on the lookout for more Cherniakov, just as I was already doing for Warlikowski.

*I have now been informed, by an omniscient mussel I know, that we can start complaining as from the 2010-2011 season, when Secco debuts at the Met in two roles. Bloody buggering bollocks...

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