Early in this revival of Verdi’s
Macbeth something extraordinary occurs. Lady M, who has entered for the first time and
muttered her way through a letter from her husband, turns her head and roars
‘Ambizioso spirito tu sei Macbetto’ with a soprano blast that pastes the
audience to the walls. Liudmyla Monastyrska has arrived. Hers is a
high-cholesterol blow-out of a voice,
full-throated and resplendent, and this calling-card moment is a vocal
coup de théâtre.
As a dramatic interpreter, the Ukrainian soprano still
has work to do. In the recent revival of Aida her
rudimentary acting was unsubtle at best, embarrassing at worst; and little has
changed here, with the most complex female character in all of Shakespeare reduced
to a monochromatically angry fishwife. Monastyrska’s tendency to travel north
of the notes is an even greater concern: there was a moment in the sleepwalking
scene where she seemed to have transposed a whole sequence up a semitone
without telling the orchestra. Yet, for all its shortcomings, Monastyrska’s
fiery, unshackled performance is one of the most exciting diva experiences
London has heard in years.
Verdi’s treatment of Shakespeare’s play is relatively
faithful to the source material, with the exception of the Weird Sisters who
have grown in number from the Bard’s three to a whole stageful of frighteners.
It must be something in the brew. As sung by the women of the Royal Opera
Chorus they are a coven to be reckoned with, but their cause is not helped by
silly red headscarves, doubtless designed for easy identification on a busy
stage, nor by the soggy choreography that too often hampers Phyllida Lloyd’s
2002 staging (which has been tightly revived by Harry Fehr).
The production itself has unanticipated subtleties. Period
setting of a sort is evoked through costume, with an Excalibur
sheen to the burnished gold worn by successive monarchs and their steeds; but
the opera’s prevailing theme of man’s darkening soul is articulated more oppressively
by Anthony Ward’s abstract, chocolate-chunk walled set (Green & Black’s,
85%) – a claustrophobic frame that fades like a lifting headache once Birnan
Wood marches on Dunsinane. The spectral dagger is presented as a blade of light,
while Verdi’s ‘Ondine e silfidi’ chorus becomes an inspired sequence that
presents the Macbeth family bed and posits a fantasy answer to the age-old
question: did she or did she not have children?
The opera’s heroic lead is Macbeth’s nemesis Macduff – a
role that affords many a tenor a showy 11 o’clock cameo – and Dimitri Pittas
certainly has all the notes, if not the interpretational finesse. As for Simon
Keenlyside in the title role, he grows in stature as the evening progresses.
Whether by accident or design, Keenlyside is overshadowed in the opera’s early stages
by the thrilling and assertive bass of Raymond Aceto’s virile Banquo; but by
Acts Two and Three his dynamic baritone is cock of the walk. From Pelléas to
Macbeth in a few short weeks, Keenlyside’s versatility is remarkable. True, his
delivery still lacks an authentic Verdian edge, but it is practically there and
he carries off this enormous role with aplomb.
If the evening belongs to anyone it is to Antonio Pappano,
who marshals singers and orchestra with precision and ideal tempi, to a
hard-working Royal Opera Chorus (their ‘Patria oppressa!’, a great slab of a
number, is ‘Va pensiero’ without the big tune), and of course to the remarkable
Liudmyla Monastyrska. Learn her name
even if you can’t pronounce it or spell it: she is an operatic force of
nature and a sensation.