Verdi's Macbeth

Ataneli, Neves, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Edinburgh Festival Chorus/Robertson

Usher Hall, 23 August 2009 4 stars

susan neves
Macbeth, a 'fusion of music and drama,' as Verdi himself described his own work in 1875, brought to life the superstitious and haunting elements of Shakespeare's disturbing drama together with a hint of Scottish nationalism to end a moving evening at Usher Hall. The performance, although without the grandeur of a designed operatic set, was effective in its creation of the sinister plot by use of minimal space.

It became quite obvious from the opening scene of Act I, just how important a role the Chorus plays in Verdi's opera. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus not only sang the parts of the three witches (dividing the upper registers into three sections), soldiers, messengers, murderers, Scottish nobles and exiles, but were also extremely essential in painting scenes and creating the transitions between them. Powerful in their presence, the chameleonic chorus frequently and convincingly changed roles. Although their role provided an essential foundation for the opera and the Shakespearean drama itself, it was not always clearly distinguished in the programme which parts of the libretto would be sung by the chorus and which were by soloists.

Sometimes soloists were overpowered by the combination of chorus and orchestra as well, such as in Act II, when the voices of Duncan and the Lady-in-Waiting were difficult to discern. Overall, the chorus was strong but there were moments of weakness in the high registers when they did not sound entirely in unison, particularly during the first two Acts. One wonders if the Edinburgh Festival Chorus may be feeling a little stretched during the festival season, having committed to four major performances in such a short period. But it must be noted these complaints are quite minor – the effect of such a grand chorus singing multiple roles was remarkably effective and the performance would not have been the same without them.

Baritone Lado Ataneli stole the show in the titular role, particularly when he was plagued with guilt in the second half, singing emotional and evocative soliloquies. Ataneli was perhaps the most effective 'actor' on stage, as he almost made one feel like they were watching a staged production. Soprano Susan Neves as the cunning Lady Macbeth entered the stage with swath of tartan draped over one shoulder of her pitch black dress. Her voice was clear but not always consistently strong, especially as it hit pitches in a lower register. In these instances (more so in the first two Acts), Neves was sometimes drowned out by the orchestra. Stronger and more expressive in the second half, she excelled in the 'Gran Scena del Sonnambulismo,' the famous sleepwalking scene, where a sorrowful performance almost convinces one to feel sorry for her plight. Here, Neves sheds her tartan, symbolic of her sleep-induced state and perhaps also a reminder of how she has forsaken her homeland as a result of her devious plotting. At the end of Act III, the murderous duo plot again in a duet, clasping each other's hands, symbolising their sinister bond.

Another highlight of the performance was John Relyea as Banquo. Judging by the audience's thunderous applause at his reappearance on stage to join the others in a final bow, I don’t think I was the only one disappointed that he was not to return after the interval, after being murdered by Macbeth's henchmen in the second Act. Although not as fluid on stage in his movements as Ataneli, Relyea's rich, velvety baritone was a pleasure to listen to.

Vsevolod Grivnov as Macduff contributed his opulent voice, even though his Italian was not always as articulate as the other singers. However, Grivnov delivered a moving solo as an emotional plea for forgiveness from Scottish refugees at the beginning of Act IV. The duet to follow sung by Macduff and Malcolm (Nicholas Phan) although not quite as clear in content, illustrated the great differences between the two tenors. Grivnov's fullness and maturity of timbre contrasted greatly with Phan's younger, developing tone. Phan alongside Katherine Broderick as the Lady-in-Waiting, Wade Kernot as the murderer, herald and one of the apparitions, and Vuyani Mlinde as the servant and doctor, is supported by the Lean Scully Fund, which promotes young talent at the Edinburgh International Festival. Their brief performances provided a small glimpse of the budding young voices that are emerging in the international opera scene.

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of David Robertson, were wonderful. They were especially strong in the wind and brass sections, which were crucial in hinting at the opera's Scottish setting. The orchestra played short interludes between scenes, creating flowing transitions between scenes. The ensemble shined in the last two acts, referencing the Scottish landscape and character of Shakespeare's drama, summoning a sense of nationalistic pride as the opera reached its finale. Act III opened with a beautifully mournful cello solo, representative of the loneliness and starkness of the next scene. The soft and sombre call of bagpipes in the distance were provided by a small wind ensemble playing from just outside the doors to the grand circle – a haunting motif that reminds us all of the familiar Scottish setting. Winds also introduced the apparitions with variations upon a motif. Three apparitions were heard from the Upper Circle, another inventive use of space without a staged production. Two were young members of the National Youth Choir of Scotland who stole the crowd's hearts with their angelic voices (and faces) despite a slight crack in one of the vocal lines.

The harp and strings mimicked other spirits, followed by winds. Just as quickly as they appeared, they vanished with a sudden pluck from the string sections. In Act IV, the bagpipe motifs returned, but this time from within the orchestra on stage. A drone created in the strings alongside the melodic winds accompanied the refugees' woeful lamentation of 'patria oppressa,' or 'oppressed homeland.' Even the dominance of the orchestra over the vocal solos in the battle scene added to the chaotic and overwhelming nature of the battlefield.

Overall, the combination of evocative and emotional performances by the soloists, and a very tightly knit orchestral performance, animated the slight tints and colours of Scottish imagery present in the score. The preentation made for a wonderfully haunting and moving evening. But it was the Edinburgh Festival Chorus that, despite its slight inconsistencies in the first half, propelled the performance forward, leading its audience through the disturbing plot of Macbeth, sending chills throughout Usher Hall

By Theresa Steward

Photo: Susan Neves

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