Macbeth triumphant in Wellington

Verdi’s Macbeth: NBR New Zealand Opera, conducted by Guido Ajmone-Marsan, directed by Tim Albery. Vector Wellington Orchestra and the Wellington Opera Chorus (original production by Opera North in 2008)

St James Theatre, Wellington

Saturday 9 October, 7.30pm

There is an unwritten convention that critics don’t expose themselves to the professional comments of other critics till they have nailed their own thoughts to the hard-drive. I try to adhere to this but pollution of the pristine impressions are sometimes unavoidable.  I heard the remark that Antonia Cifrone’s voice was not beautiful, and another that it had been described as ‘serviceable’.  These kinds of remarks are usually the refuge of the over-confident or the critic with a limited view of acceptable musical styles.

From her opening lines I was struck by Cifrone’s vigour, and by the very qualities that Verdi had prescribed for the role. He’s on record saying he did NOT want a beautiful voice; he wanted a ‘harsh, strangled, grim’ voice that depicted a domineering and ruthless woman. No one could so describe Ms Cifrone, who had sung the role in Opera North’s original production in 2008, but her vocal attributes allowed gave her performance all the dramatic and musical power called for.

Her acting conveyed the essential features of Lady Macbeth; it was both commanding in gesture and movement, and surprisingly balletic (the ballet, as usual, was dropped) in scenes such as the Banquet, where she produced an impressive coloratura display in the brindisi; in the sleep-walking scene her voice was stretched like a taut wire by the power of her conscience and her subconscious, yet singularly beautiful.

As usual, the stage director employs the prelude to entertain us with the witches, perched on little ledges on a sloping back-drop, suggesting the opening scene of Rheingold; they are soon seen as midwives to Lady Macbeth in labour, delivering a still-born baby, that they neatly drop in the bin. Psychologist Tim Albery lighted on this embellishment, derived from a cryptic line in the play, though not in the libretto, to explain the childless lady’s nasty obsessions. I thought it contributed less than nothing.

The related, near omnipresence, of a bed in almost every scene was a close relative of the obstetric adornment. It came in handy as the bed on which Duncan was murdered, for the royal couple’s copulation scene, for a later multiple birth scene (six this time, tossed about by the attendant witches/nurses), and for Lady Macbeth’s eventual expiry.

I do not mean to suggest that these efflorescences got in the way of the story; they were just a slightly wearying example of the director’s (all directors’) compulsive intrusiveness.

Finally, I have to say how silly, even distasteful, I found the publicity images. It seems to be accepted, in spite of years of criticism, that you can present images purporting to be of opera principals that are actually of models. If they reflect the characters with a little integrity, it’s not quite so bad, but the couple used on posters and on the programme cover are simply ridiculous: nothing could be more at odds with anyone’s notion of what Macbeth and the Lady are like.

Otherwise, the dramatic glosses were unobtrusive, entertaining and usually acceptable.

The second immediate impact was of the splendidly prepared chorus, particularly the women – usually as witches. Their singing was swift, tautly rhythmic, excellently balanced and punchy; and their disposition and movement, as that of the cast as a whole, was conspicuously natural, meaningful with dramatic force, lively or static as appropriate; they sit in rows on either side, knitting – like the Norns in the Prologue of Götterdämmerung? Though Albery was in Auckland for four weeks and staged the performance in Auckland, the programme credits assistant director Maxine Braham as ‘movement director’, and I’m told that Steven Whiting directed the Wellington chorus*.

The first appearance of principals is of Macbeth and Banquo – baritone Michele Kalmandi and bass Jud Arthur – two excellent low voices, of well contrasted timbres, the former exhibiting a little more polish, but the latter with striking vocal colour and personality.

The arrival of Duncan, the king, is always dramatically odd for his role is negligible (acted by Barry Mawer); the ubiquitous bed is already there on stage, beset with screens as the King retires, soon to be killed by Macbeth whose subsequent anguish was well depicted. It all takes place as courtiers lie asleep on the floor in the same hall: no one wakes during the commotion. A propos of which Julian Budden’s great study of the operas quotes a letter from Verdi to the first Macbeth (Varesi) stressing the need to sing sotto voce, and pointing to the careful orchestration that would be very quiet beneath his voice.

Dinner jackets are de rigueur most of the time: everyone rises the morning after, black ties and dinner jackets intact; the assassins hired to kill Banquo, too, are properly dressed. And after that contract has been fulfilled, Banquo returns during the banquet scene, in the proper tenue de ville of any self-respecting ghost.

Macduff gets little exposure till the fourth act when he follows the Scottish exiles’ restrained but moving ‘Patria oppressa’ with his own lamenting, ‘O figli, o figli miei … Ah, la paterna mano’. Russian tenor Roman Shulackoff’s performance attracted the biggest ovation of the evening. But it’s a long way to travel for one aria….

Other comprimario roles were excellently filled. Morag Atchison used her large, attractive voice to excellent effect as Lady-in-waiting; Derek Hill sang Malcolm, whose presence is important in the last act, most convincingly and the Doctor’s part was strongly taken by Matthew Landreth.

Then came the oddest interpolation: we saw another unidentified woman on the bed, giving birth to a succession of six babies which the encircling witches joyfully tossed about like footballs. Who was she? Who was the father? Were they live or still-born? And what was that all about? One speculation was that they were Banquo’s children whom the witches prophesied as kings, as little crowns were held over them.  It’s not really satisfactory for a director to introduce people or events not in the libretto, without explaining himself in the programme book. That it misfired was shown by audience laughter.

Macbeth’s killing by Macduff takes place on stage, as in the 1847 version, and the two bodies laid side by side are conflagrated with petrol in best terrorist style.

The production as a whole however was continuously absorbing. The stage designs by Johan Engels were obviously far from medieval Scotland, vaguely of an east European dictatorship, but consistent and helpful to the singers. The music director, Guido Ajmone-Marsan, managed soloists, chorus (rehearsed by Michael Vinten) and orchestra with great energy, getting precision, dramatic colour and variety from the playing of the Wellington Orchestra.

This is one of the most arresting and brilliantly performed opera productions seen in Wellington; I had not a moment’s inattention and must recommend it unreservedly.

*The details in this sentence contain clarifications provided by the company on Monday 1 October.

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