Verdi - Macbeth

Palais de la Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday September 25 2016.

Conductor: Paolo Carignani. Production: Olivier Fredj. Graphics: Jean Lecointre. Sets: Olivier Fredj, Gaspard Pinta, Massimo Troncanetti. Costumes: Frédéric Llinares. Lighting: Christophe Forey. Choreography: Dominique Boivin. Macbeth: Scott Hendricks. Banco: Carlo Colombara. Lady Macbeth: Béatrice Uria-Monzon. Dama di Lady Macbeth: Lies Vandewege. Macduff: Andrew Richards. Malcolm: Julian Hubbard. Medico, Servo, Araldo: Justin Hopkins. Sicario: Gerard Lavalle. La Monnaie Orchestra and Chorus.

I've often wondered why opera-houses change their productions so often. Anyone in Paris for as long as I've been will have lost count of successive versions of The Magic Flute at the Opéra National, where there have already been three different productions even of Saint-François d'Assise... Just six years ago, La Monnaie offered us Macbeth directed by Warlikowski, surely quite a big name. Yet this season, though the company is supposed to be hard-up, we have a new staging by Olivier Fredj, his first opera. Perhaps it's down to the renovation delays and the limitations of that dreaded tent again. I don't know*.

A read through the programme notes shows Fredj wasn't short of ideas. His "backbone" themes are sleep and dreams, extending these to the Freudian interpretation of dreams, nightmares, surrealism, sleep deprivation and its effects (e.g. hallucinations: Macbeth, in terror, was sleep-deprived, hence Banquo's ghost and the apparitions) and of course sleepwalking. He brought in a surrealist artist as graphic designer to splice together black-and-white pictures to create bizarre hybrids or symmetrical images recalling Rorschach tests. He had gloomy grey videos made of people with sleep disorders writhing or flailing about in narrow hospital beds. He even, if I understood correctly, visited a specialist medical center in Paris to gen up on the latest research into the pathology of sleep, and had a doctor there write an essay on it and its links to Shakespeare's plays.

But he was also prompted by "All the world's a stage" sometimes to have the chorus sitting in a "mirror" theatre at the rear, facing the audience and sandwiching the action between: merely players. He noted the emphasis on descendants, i.e. babies, represented by prams of the kind you no longer see, except in photos of royal families. And he thinks - again, if I understood correctly, of which there is of course no guarantee whatsoever - that to a modern audience under the influence of cinema, the place for strange things to happen is hotels, and so set the work in one.

There were, I think, too many strands. At least one, the videos of people in bed, having started the show, never appeared again. Same with the "Rorschach" projections. Overall, the effect was bitty. And if you read the programme, with its nightmares and Freud and surrealism and so on  before seeing the result you might think you were in for a grimly cerebral reading. But it turned out to be an entertaining show, if not necessarily clearly relevant to the play after all.

It opened, then, with those unfortunate patients churning in their beds and various projections on gauzes. The main, modular, set, was of white walls with mouldings, on which a variety of wallpapers, quilting (that changed cleverly to owls' eyes when the supernatural showed up), pointed motifs representing the dagger or other effects could be projected. As, when we first met them, Macbeth and his wife were running an art deco hotel - the Glamis Castle Country House Hotel and Spa ***** or something like that - there was sometimes a hotel desk to one side, a large double door with stained glass panels at the rear, and lots of sleek, nimble hotel staff in neat black-and-white dashing primly and efficiently about.

The hotel staff
But of course, first we had the witches, and here, representing the weird and wonderful supernatural, we got in fact, more or less, the "Time Warp" crowd from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, much cross-dressed, in extravagant black-and-white couture outfits (smarter and richer than Rocky's guests, with an Austin Powers touch: jabots and frilly cuffs for the "men," and Cruella-de-Vil styles for the "girls") and outlandish hair: more fun than frightening. Hotel staff and witches (any borderline between them was blurred) were played by dancers; the chorus sang either in the wings or at the rear or, most effectively, in a marvellous "Patria oppressa" in their street clothes dotted around the tent among the audience - this was probably the best moment all afternoon: it was truly thrilling to be surrounded by the singing, not just sitting facing it.

Banquo was murdered rather comically with fridge doors, kitchen knives and a frying pan by the "zany"staff in the blue-tiled hotel kitchen, wheeled on in preparation for the banquet. Equally comically, Banquo's ghost was in this case Banquo's head on a platter, revealed by a waiter lifting a large cloche from a dinner trolley. Lady M., who started out - when she was still running the hotel - in wide, plain black trousers with a cigarette holder in her hand, was by now in gleaming gold lamé with a fancy red wig, and Macbeth's grey suit with its plain grey kilt over the trousers was now golden. The kitchen became the scene for the witches' next caperings and the apparitions scene was more like a surreal and ghostly fashion show, with towering, white-faced models wreathed in smoke. As events turned even sourer for him, Macbeth, armed for the battle by the witches/staff with a feather duster and a saucepan lid, like a cousin of Ubu Roi, overturned the prams, presumably (we couldn't actually see) damaging the contents. At the end, the reluctant Malcolm was shoved forward by the chorus (seated at the rear again): neither he, nor the equally reluctant Macbeth earlier, had come to power by their own free will.

Macbeth and Lady M.
I think it will be evident by now that I felt there were too many threads not quite weaving coherently together. Not sure, either, that the appearance of Banquo's ghost should have been a gag, or that there was any real reason why the opera should be taking place in a whacky, upscale, art deco Fawlty Towers, (other than that the production team liked art deco), or that we should find Macbeth "entertaining", which might be thought to trivialise it. But entertaining's what it was.

In any case, whatever the production's faults or however flawed - or worse - the work is said to be, it's one of my favourites, so I was just plain glad to have Macbeth again and not inclined to be picky.

As I've often said before, this kind of Verdi is exactly the sort of music La Monnaie's orchestra is best at, and Carignani is the kind of brisk, no-messing-about conductor I like. The chorus was splendid, above all when singing their stirring "Patria oppressa" among the audience.

The men, rather than subtle, were kind of rough-and-ready: "no better than they ought to be," a late Scottish friend of mine might have said. Hendricks and Colombara were both in the same roles in the (darker, by far) Warlikowski production six years ago. The former's voice has thickened and grown "uglier" - nothing necessarily wrong with that, in this kind of part - and the latter's is stiffer and harder and sort of ungainly. For some reason - something in the timbre, something a bit pinched at the top? - Andrew Richards sounded Welsh to me, but I looked him up and he appears to be American. On Sunday, he seemed to be at his limit but he has impressed the critics.

I'm not sure what to say about Béatrice Uria-Monzon as Lady Macbeth other than that she made the best of an odd job. People complain that J. Kaufmann's "baritonal" tenor isn't right for all his roles, but as far as I know nobody actually claims he's a baritone, not a tenor at all. BUM, as she's known in France, is undeniably a mezzo, and not of the Shirley Verrett kind. Her dark and round and soft and plummy sound transforms the role: this is a different, possibly disconcerting, Lady Macbeth. She brought it off, but had to keep the top notes short. "Una Macchia" was her best moment.

I almost feel sorry for the management at La Monnaie, forced by further delays in renovating the Théâtre Royal to change the season's schedule to fit their not-so-temporary plastic hangar on waste ground by the canal. Perhaps it was a sign of gratitude to their much-mucked-about subscribers that I found myself in better seats there this time, closer to the action and with better sound. But as it was often hard to place the singing, I wondered if, to improve the acoustics, they had now installed some subtle amplification. Then, when Malcolm passed close by us with the chorus members asembling for "Patria Oppressa", my neighbour leaned to me and whispered "mike" - he claimed he had seen one by Malcolm's left ear.

Planes roared overhead, as usual, at strategic moments, and a much slower one, one with propellors, buzzed over seemingly endlessly just after the battle, forcing Macbeth to emote alone on the floor for quite some time before going into his final monologue (the ending chosen for this production). But this Sunday there was something new: a loud rushing sound that I thought might be a wind machine or a side drum roll brought in for atmosphere by the director. But no: it was rain.

*I later read, on, "La tentation est grande de rapprocher cette mise en scène, qui laisse d’abord sceptique avant de susciter l’intérêt, avec celle de Krzysztof Warlikowski, en 2010, qui devait à l’origine être reprise." So the original plan was to revive the Warlikowski.

As usual, Maestro Wenarto nails it. But Il giardino di Armida left at the interval!


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