Sunday, 20 August 2017

EIF 2017 – Macbeth at the Festival Theatre, or, In Need of Restraint

When the EIF programme was announced I questioned the decision to programme Verdi's Macbeth for the fourth time in twenty years. After this performance I have not changed my mind. I still don't find it an especially distinguished opera, and this production was not of sufficient quality to merit the repeat programming.

The first problem is with Verdi's work itself. It lacks the masterful dramatic craftsmanship of later works like Traviata or Don Carlo. Pacing struck me as off, motivations insufficiently illuminated by  music, and textual setting not always convincing. There are a number of potentially powerful moments – particularly the mad scene – but there's quite a few places where the music seems to me to chunter on in an overly cheerful mood that doesn't properly match the sombreness of the subject matter.

However, it is also true, that any attempt to make this a serious study of murder and civil war was undermined by Emma Dante's often, I'm afraid, rather silly production. There are some occasional striking images, the ring of sword points around Macbeth at the very end in particular, but overall the defects outweigh the positives. To begin with Dante makes the mistake, perhaps understandable given the weaknesses of the score, of thinking that there must be something going on all the time. The semi-naked witches (swelled by extras to an enormous number) writhe about, often under a rust and white mingled floor cloth in a manner which rarely feels threatening but becomes increasingly distracting. The set is minimal but tiresomely mobile. There is the kernel of a good idea in the moving beds in the mad scene – suggestive when there are only four of them of Lady Macbeth trying the various rooms in the castle as sleep eludes her. But as the number mounted it began to look overly comic, as if a Busby Berkeley number was going to break out. Rather than attending to her madness, I also found myself observing the back left pair of beds which seemed slightly too close together and were giving me the faint sense of operators under the sheets querying one another's directions. Similar problems occur in the scene with Banquo's Ghost –  Dante directs the chorus poorly so there's insufficient distinction between their reaction and Macbeth's. Coupled with too much milling about and movement of the rather silly gilded chairs the focus slips from where it should be – Macbeth and his madness. One other point about the chorus – I found it unconvincing when they are all summoned from their supposed beds on the announcement of Duncan's murder that they all turn up fully clothed – not least the soldiers who have taken the trouble to put on their rather cumbersome spiked helmets. Dante also resorts to two other familiar mistakes, firstly chair throwing to indicate emotion (can we please have a ban on this for a bit) and secondly overly symbolic set which seems to assume that the audience is too stupid to grasp what is going on – thus the several gilded crown like fences – compounded by the decision to have Macbeth set one swinging in the air late on in the drama. A further issue is Dante's treatment of the violence which comes across as cartoonish – there's little blood, little sense of the horror that the music is at least trying to find in the scenes surrounding the murder of Duncan. Overall, there's a familiar failure to craft a convincing sense of place for these people to be, and thus really make it feel as if a kingdom, a country is at stake.

Musically, the performance was on stronger ground, though not nearly in the same league as last Sunday's Grimes or Gardiner's Monteverdi (for all my doubts about the latter's approach). The best of the singing came from Dalibor Jenis's Macbeth and Piero Pretti's Macduff. The former sounded occasionally on the edge of his comfort zone but often found that ringing heroism these big Verdi roles need. Pretti gave, for me, the best singing of the evening in his Act 4 aria. I was much less convinced by Anna Pirozzi's Lady Macbeth. Yes she has power, but I often found her tone lacked beauty and when not punching through at the top she often sounded as though she were scrambling and on occasion I had doubts about tuning. While not helped by the production she failed to find the needed intensity for the mad scene. The minor roles were solidly taken. The Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Regio Torino were on generally strong form, and Gianandrea Noseda kept the drama moving forward (convincing me much more than when I last encountered him at the ROH's Il Trovatore).

Overall, this was a solid but not exceptional performance of this work. It is now time for it to be rested from Festival programming for a good long stretch.

Housekeeping Notice: Once again (as at Don Giovanni) the opening minutes of the first half were marred in the Upper Circle by admission of latecomers. It is clearly impossible given the wooden seats for this to be done quietly. Apparently companies are allowed to decide whether latecomers should be admitted. This is out of line with other major opera houses I regularly attend. If the Festival wants to operate to national never mind international standards it needs to do something about this – you don't have doors and seats banging in the same way at the Proms, or the Snape Maltings, or the Royal Opera House. This has been a problem for years. It is high time for the Festival management to sort it out.

1 comment:

  1. The reason MacBeth was programmed as it was the first opera performed at the EIF, hence it was chosen for the EIF'S 70th birthday festival.