Verdi: Macbeth

Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Glyndebourne, 25 August 2010 4 stars

MacbethWhat a difference a run of performances makes! I saw the Richard Jones Macbeth in May 2007 and thought it then a confection of interesting ideas, not fully realized and not particularly well sung (although the orchestral work even then, with Vladimir Jurowski in the pit, was fresh, thrilling and actually saved the show).

Fast forward to the final performance of the same production in the 2010 Festival and a completely different level of artistic attainment emerged: onstage action matched some wonderful playing in the pit, the Glyndebourne chorus was in great voice and executed their semi-stylised routines to perfection, the soloists played off each other and the Verdi came over as the exciting – albeit uneven – masterpiece that it is.

It is all down to confidence with the material, knowledge that synchronized door-slamming, foot-stamping really works if it is executed with split-second precision and absolutely in the spirit of the music. In this performance, with full credit to revival director Geoffrey Dolton, audience and cast alike had a ball.

For those unacquainted with Jones’s vision of the work, this Macbeth is a bold, primary colour affair: vivid tartan kilts predominate, we are plunged into an almost Walt Disney realization of a sort of fantasy Scotland. The fantasy continues with some of the scenic elements: when the walk-on Duncan arrives to stay his one and only night at the Macbeths, he enters and sleeps in a cross between a log cabin and a Wendy house downstage left. When we encounter the witches in the forest, they emerge from three identical 1950s-style caravans (giving dramatic point to the three-part female chorus Verdi writes for them). When murder is being contemplated, a row of daggers spring up, right across the stage in the position that the footlights used to occupy. And when Lady sings her famous soliloquy in Act IV Scene 2, she dons and peels off endless pairs of gloves, throwing them away into a rotating washing machine drum. Subtle it is not, but it often catches and matches the bold and primary coloured music that Verdi uses for his first operatic adaptation of a Shakespeare play. There could be an argument that what we see onstage in this production is not ‘dark’ enough (stage illumination is at a high level throughout) but I would counter that by suggesting that Jones is highlighting, almost in cartoon manner, the cruelty and madness interwoven throughout Macbeth by shining a bright spotlight on it all. Anyway, on the basis of the performance I saw – it works, and it works splendidly.

In 2007 Macbeth and Lady were sung, respectively, by Andrzej Dobber and Sylvie Valayre, neither proving to be particularly exciting in their roles. Dobber sang this year too, but was replaced for the last three performances by Stephen Gadd, and what a difference that made. Gadd engaged with the role from the word go, observing precisely the dynamic markings stipulated by Verdi in the opening duet with Banquo, and what a joy it is to hear pianissimo singing in a passage which is often simply sung too loud. He sounded in excellent voice throughout, with a full baritonal ring and a confident grasp of Verdian phrasing – putting the character into the voice and taking us on Macbeth’s tragic journey. Just as impressive was Erika Sunnegardh as Lady. Verdi stipulated that he did not want a beautiful voice for this role: he wanted character, and Sunnegardh had that in abundance, although her tonal beauty – particularly as the evening progressed – was very evident. This was a striking assumption of the role, with thrilling top notes, although I did feel that Sunnegardh had tired very slightly by the sleepwalking scene in Act IV. But she and Gadd made a fine couple.

As Banquo, Stanislav Shvets reprised his 2007 performance. I think the general standard of musicianship and precision lifted him somewhat, for I do not remember being as impressed with his voice as I was this year: he and Macbeth made a splendid, and nicely contrasted study in heroic male singing in the lower register! Shvets has a resonant bass sound and a sure command of the role – it is a pity we had to lose him so relatively early in the proceedings.

There was one other absolute stand-out vocal performance to note: Yonghoon Lee in the minor role of Macduff. The character saves his great aria until near the end, but Lee absolutely rose to the challenge and gave a wonderful, full-throated exciting account of Ah, la paterna mano, the recitative and aria that blazes all the more brightly for the chorus highspot it follows, Patria oppressa! Singing it for the last time this season, the wonderful Glyndebourne Chorus almost nailed it: there was just, to my ears, a lack of tonal blending in the dynamic rise and fall, a sense of the moment that is nearly spellbinding, but not quite. But then Lee rose to the occasion and reminded us of what Pavarotti used to sound like in the role: thrilling.

In the pit was Vasily Petrenko, who conducted the LPO in Verdi as if to the manner born. Tempi were swift, orchestral articulation was great, stage and pit were together and the music often blazed. Petrenko gave the chorus their head when required, and the visceral excitement of some of Verdi’s effects came through, but Petrenko was also considerate to his singers and kept the dynamics down, allowing soloists to sing softly and to articulate: Piave’s libretto was mostly pretty audible. So the opera came over as all of a piece, a splendidly integrated whole. I enjoyed it hugely.

By Mike Reynolds