North East & YorkshireOperaReviewShakespeare

Macbeth – Theatre Royal, York

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi

Text: Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei, after Shakespeare

Conductor: Gerry Cornelius

Director: James Dacre

Designer: Frankie Bradshaw

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

English Touring Opera has, in recent years, built a formidable reputation for the quality of its productions of baroque opera, but the company’s Spring 2019 tour offers operas by Verdi, Mozart and (though not in York) Rossini.

James Dacre’s production of Macbeth ticks all the wrong boxes at the outset but finally wins through thanks mainly to the quality of the two principals and the committed conducting of Gerry Cornelius. During the overture the curtain rises to a rather unconvincing re-enactment of the battle, sadly, not just a dumb show, but accompanied by strangled shouts and the thump of bodies hitting the stage – there’s some music going on in the pit, doesn’t that matter? The witches (a chorus, not a trio, in Verdi) appear as a row of nurses with a disconcerting resemblance to nuns and, when Macbeth and Banquo’s silhouettes call to mind police inspectors – or maybe traffic wardens? – all trace of menace or tension disappears, eventually to be brought back after the death of Duncan by the efforts of Grant Doyle and Madeleine Pierard as the Macbeths. Only in an evocatively staged apparitions scene do the witches create the necessary sense of mystery.

Verdi and his librettists were remarkably respectful of Shakespeare’s original. The text is inevitably pared down, but the only major changes come in the concertina-ing of Shakespeare’s Acts 4 and 5 into Verdi’s Act 4 – and who would not forego the tedious scene in England for a Verdi speciality, the exiles’ chorus? Andrew Porter’s English translation is equally respectful, using Shakespeare’s words when possible, otherwise admirably clear and singable, but somewhat prosaic. Diction, incidentally, is uniformly excellent, the titles, for once, superfluous.

It is difficult to convince as a Macbeth who appears in state in a lounge-suit jacket, trousers with a commissionaire’s stripe down the side and a too-small crown, but ultimately Grant Doyle manages it. Initially, his singing and his performance tend to the generic, but the intensity develops, his scenes with Lady Macbeth grow in impact as the evening progresses and he finds a fine lyricism in the last act. Madeleine Pierard is always equal to the vocal demands of Lady Macbeth, a certain harshness in her upper register well suited to the part, and transcends the rather suburban opening to become a powerful and moving Lady Macbeth.

Verdi’s version of Shakespeare’s play increases the role of Lady Macbeth while playing down most of the other characters – and the result is that the third most important part is the chorus. The only two parts that have any individuality are well discharged by Andrew Slater, a typically stalwart Banquo, and Amar Muchhala who delivers Macduff’s Act 4 lament beautifully. Despite having to face various challenges to credibility – why are noble lords, for instance, dressed in camouflage jackets and woolly hats for a banquet? – the chorus is effective throughout, with telling contributions in small parts from chorus members David Lynn, Tanya Hurst and Ed Hawkins. 

Touring nationwide | Image: Richard Hubert Smith 

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