The first of his three completed Shakespeare operas, Macbeth was a work of which Verdi was particularly proud. He believed he had created a new fusion of music and drama, and even when writing deliberately banal music for the witches, the composer sought for new, individually characterised sounds.
Very little of Richard Jones' new Glyndebourne production of the opera survived the trip to the Proms last night, so little in fact as to make me wonder why the company bothered to attempt a semi-staging (realised by Geoffrey Dolton). The singers were all in costume, but in the case of the chorus this was a waste of time: they never moved all evening, apart from standing up and singing in front of their chairs. Without the backdrops and certain crucial props it was difficult to appreciate Jones' interpretation entirely. However, it's clear enough that he opted for a dark comic style rather than a tragic one. This was largely to the detriment of the Proms performance. The Macbeths wielded axes, the witches created their brew with the glee of characters out of a Warner Bros cartoon, and the dancers in the Act Three apparitions ballet came on dressed as a wolf, a skeleton and a faceless man (or was it a mummy?). To convey the drama in this way is a complete misunderstanding of what Verdi and Piave were trying to do; I've never seen a less sinister, less tragic or less moving Macbeth.
It wasn't the director's fault that his concept for the sleepwalking aria didn't work in this venue: whereas at Glyndebourne Lady Macbeth tried to wash the 'damn spot' out of her gloves in a washing machine, here she just kept putting them on, taking them off and throwing them in a bag. Similarly, the witches were deprived of the caravans they had in the full staging. However, the director really is to blame for the lack of purpose with which the singers walked about the (admittedly small) stage. Macbeth in particular seemed oddly disengaged with proceedings, but practically the whole cast seemed at a loss as to what to do. Their silly costumes didn't help: sporting kilts and tam-o'-shanters, the men all looked very ordinary and similar, while poor Lady M wore a tight, light blue dress and a blonde wig that made her resemble something out of Last of the Summer Wine. There was I thinking she was the Queen of Scotland.
The directorial woes weren't entirely alleviated by the musical performance, either. In Act Three, Vladimir Jurowski found considerable gravity and atmosphere in the score (especially in the ballet, despite the mindless choreography), and what can sometimes be a slightly tiresome stretch of non-vocal music became the highlight. It was good to see Jurowski returning to period performance practice by using the cimbasso, a member of the trombone family with valves that was commonplace in the operas of Verdi and Puccini, but in other respects I found this a troublesome reading. In the first two acts particularly, Jurowski favoured unrealistically fast tempi at the expense of precision and expression. I've never heard the largo concertante in the banquet scene taken so briskly and the Macbeth was so flustered that the characteristic dotted rhythms were often neutralised. In general, the classicism of the score was overlooked, with none of the firm phrase endings and shaped slurs that can make this opera so forceful, and the ravishingly beautiful a cappella concertato in the Act 1 finale - normally so compelling - was too fast and lacked an attention to the many specific articulation markings with which the score is littered. The London Philharmonic was enthusiastic but rather brash and insensitive (probably because of the way they were being conducted), while the Glyndebourne Chorus took an awfully long time to warm up.
In another respect, too, this was an unsatisfactory event. Jurowski and Jones chose to perform the revised 1865 Paris version of the opera but they reverted to the original 1847 version for the final scene of Act IV. I'm all for performing original versions of operas as a way of understanding how composers first tackled their libretti, but the combination used here was never a Verdian option. It's worth bearing in mind that the Critical Edition of the complete works of Verdi by the University of Chicago Press prints the 1865 version of Macbeth as the main score and appends the scenes that were different in 1847 in a shorter second volume, because 'Verdi considered the revision definitive'. Even disregarding the importance of Verdi's intentions, I found that the use of the 1847 finale at this performance only had the effect of revealing why the composer changed it. Anticlimactic at the final curtain where the revised version is exciting, it lingers over the death of Macbeth in a haze of dramatic stasis that goes entirely against the grain of Verdi's project.
The singing was also very mixed at this performance. Sylvie Valayre was highly convincing as Lady Macbeth, ensuring she gained the audience's attention at all times and portraying the character's obsessive descent into madness with great imagination. It's eleven years since I first heard her sing at the Proms, when she took over from Galina Gorchakova as Elisabeth de Valois in a Royal Opera performance of Don Carlo at the last minute. The voice shows signs of wear and tear now, with an uneven coloratura and some pitching problems, and it is nothing out of the ordinary. However, she still has a full tone and a formidable attack, and made 'La luce langue' especially convincing.
Baritone Andrzej Dobber had by far the most beautiful voice on stage and gave a well-rounded, superbly phrased rendition of Macbeth's famous aria in the closing scene. But he was also the most wooden actor. Carrying a blank expression on his face throughout the opera, he brought little of the psychological complexity that this role requires.
The singer with the most powerful projection was Stanislav Shvets, who made the most of Banquo's brief music even if there was the occasional lapse of tuning. Peter Auty was drowned out in many of the ensembles, but his stylish performance of Macduff's sensational aria was one of the highpoints of the evening. Many of the other singers failed to make an impact, but Svetlana Sozdateleva was so vocally secure as Lady Macbeth's Lady-in-Waiting that I could well believe she could be promoted to the Lady herself in the future.
Without doubt this was a solid performance of Macbeth, and the audience seemed to love it. But for me, neither the dramatic nor the musical aspects did justice to the opera.