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Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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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.

- Mark Valencia


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