Macbeth (Opera North)
Tim Albery's staging of Verdi's first Shakespeare opera returns to Opera North
On its first appearance in 2008 Tim Albery's production of Verdi's Macbeth was widely praised for its energy and drama. This still holds good on its revival, with an entirely new cast and high musical values, even if the evil passion of the central couple is somewhat muted.
Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, were remarkably faithful to Shakespeare's original, even retaining exact images that reflect the main characters' thoughts and feelings. They made three important changes: most of the minor characters, from such lords as Ross and Angus to the drunken Porter, were either removed or taken over by the chorus; Lady Macbeth became a more proactive figure in Macbeth's time of slaughter, and the role of the witches – now a chorus, not just three hags – was developed. So Verdi was able to write that "the main roles of this opera are, and can only be, three: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the chorus of witches".
Albery's use of modern dress generally seems to me to add little, though it does no harm. Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes are undistinguished and I don't enjoy the growing tendency towards dinner jackets in opera productions. Operas were once black-tie occasions in the stalls, not the stage!
The drab screens of Johan Engels' set design are merely efficient. However, there are considerable compensations. In Bruno Poet's atmospheric lighting, the bleakly bare set often gains a shadowy mystery and the brass bedstead frequently wheeled on is a meaningful and dramatically effective prop, not just a gimmick. In particular, the working-class Witches are a potent presence, flitting menacingly (sometimes, comically) round the action, while three of their number keep watch on their chosen victim.
As Macbeth, Bela Perencz is vocally assured but never totally commands the stage. In the early stages his delivery is unusually lyrical and, though his mental anguish breaks through in the splendidly handled Apparitions scene, he remains essentially a solid citizen. Kelly Cae Hogan's Lady Macbeth may sing the part too well for the "hard, stifled and dark" tone that Verdi asked for, but hers is a compelling performance, powerfully sung, passionate, troubled, skittish in her Act 2 drinking song, more Violetta than "fiend-like queen". The minor parts are strongly cast, headed by Paul Whelan's authoritative Banquo and Jung Soo Yun, eloquently Italianate in Macduff's lament for his family.
Under Tobias Ringborg's baton the production is skilfully paced, the momentum sustained with no loss of detail, the orchestral playing full of drama and colour. The chorus makes the most of its central role, from the grotesque spells of the Witches to a heart-felt "Patria oppressa", one of Verdi's great choruses of patriotic freedom.