Krzysztof Warlikowski's cluttered, confused, and occasionally inventive new production of Verdi's Macbeth is currently bringing what has been an impressive season at La Monnaie opera house in Brussels to a raucous close.
Boasting a strong enough cast that gets better as the night goes on, dealing especially well in the cases of Iano Tamar as Lady Macbeth and Scott Hendricks as Macbeth with complex psychological progressions of character, and featuring a conductor in Paul Daniel, an orchestra, and (crucially) a chorus on generally fine, committed form (notwithstanding occasionally lethargic string playing), the production has much to recommend it. It's a shame, then, that the director's choices so often obscure the force of the performances, obfuscating where they should bring clarity, cheapening where they should create space for profundity.
That direction requires some explanation. Two years after what from all reports seems to have been an equally divisive Médée (Cherubini's version that is, not Dusapin's), Karlikowski seeks with this Macbeth to create a disquisition on evil as a human phenomenon, specifically as it foreshadows, plays out in, and recalls, states of war.
Eschewing dramatic unity, Karlikowski instead places his characters in a shifting cascade of symbolically allusive situations. What we know for sure and hold onto throughout a series of sometimes uncomfortable dramatic shifts and incongruous minutiae, is that Macbeth, Duncan, and Banquo are soldiers of some kind, each of them appearing to be suffering from neurasthenia. Ensconced in a military hospital at the start, the characters inhabit roles of an unspecified aspect; as the night wears on and the staging shifts in detail and emphasis, echoes of World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, and the two Iraq wars pile-up (this is very much an anglophile production).
Making use of a dazzling multimedia set, with Denis Guéguin's video set up of a large back screen, three smaller TVs at the top that relegate titles to the sides of the stage, and various movable TVs on the stage showing clips from a series of iconic films, the production places us in shifting realms of reference. Featuring heavily at the start is Nichola Ray's 1948 noir They Live By Night, a film whose criminal central couple bear obvious comparison to Macbeth and his wife. They Live by Night even lends to the production a short introduction, complete with subtitles, which introduction graduates into the soft-toned, American accented voice of a narrator-as-Macbeth, who details here and before the second act the situation he finds himself in. The conceit is cheeky, particularly as the rest of the piece is sung in Italian, but it simply doesn't come off, despite its promising suggestion of a 1940s framework.
The sheer busyness of the visual and sonic noise here is typical of the rest of the production, as are the somewhat gauche, silence filled transitions between scenes. You have to wait for the fourth scene, with Tamar's sumptuous and intelligent reading of her Cavatina, to get any handle on the presentation, or indeed to get any sense that the musical text is being interrogated in an interesting way. Carlo Colombara's brawny and stentorian Banquo was a shining light in the opening muddle, it should be noted.
The music as a deepening of Shakespeare's drama seems an alien conception at times in this production. The degree of dramaturgical invention is high in sheer terms of conception and symbol, and remains so throughout. The director's courage in this should at least be welcomed. And, indeed, some of his choices convinced. The placing of the witches' and general choruses in the Gods of the auditorium initially felt awkward; those witches' opening salvos were weak and stumblingly uncoordinated, you felt because of the manner in which they were asked to perform. Yet as the blend of men and women settled in, the spatialisation of the sound, not to mention the rich symbolic portent of the voices coming from the heavens, made for compelling music-dramatic spectacle. This was never more the case than in the stunning, primarily a cappella conclusion to act one, where, despite the simply ludicrous suggestion that a King would be residing in a dingy hospital bed with no guards or attaché of any kind, Macbeth's murder of Duncan, and the following revelations, brought a zing of the sublime into the theatre for the first time. I especially appreciated the swift transition from murder, to funeral, to coronation, which Karlikowski's fleet-footed direction created for this crucial passage of the drama.
However, it is the case that a lot of the power of the performance came in those moments in which you sensed that directorial intervention was impossible. To whit the aforementioned Cavatina, or indeed Hendricks' bravura almost-solo third act (which benefited especially from the uncanny, Aphex Twin recalling children mocked up all with Banquo masks, tramping around Macbeth in creeping horror). There, the singer's initial failure to gain any purchase on the chaos surrounding him grew into a much more authoritative assumption, clever at times, visceral at others, all the while anchored in singing of tonal clarity and dynamic vigour. This solo tour de force followed on from the more modern dinner party set-up of act two that came complete with hidden camera projecting the guests' grimaces and smiles onto the back screen (one of the director's more impressive conceits). Hendricks' Macbeth suddenly appeared sullen, drunken, sloshily engaging in this act, just as the spectre of Banquo began to press closer. Tamar's Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, was a resolutely interesting presence, imperative in the brindisi, coaxing with her husband (though never hectoring or cartoon) throughout, and meltingly, tragically pathetic in her final aria, where she sang with a deliquescent grace, always ringingly clear and yet communicative of fragility and frailty at the same time.
So, a lot to praise. Yet the strong middle acts gave way, regrettably, to more hypertrophy in the concluding sections. Shots from a series of films paralleled symbolic interventions on stage. A mad, bad, bedraggled and wheelchair bound Macbeth now recalled Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July. A greased up, war painted Macduff suggested Martin Sheen preparing to meet the maniacal Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Macduff was portrayed by a charismatic and well-received Andrew Richards, whose applause underlined the stark absence of the same throughout the night - was this a particularly diffident crowd—they didn't seems so in giving a fairly warm reception at the end—or did the stream of information and energy simply leave them incapable of marking out dramatic punctuation as they would have in another production?
Whatever the answer, it was clear that by this final, fourth act, the director's vision had become profligate, any coherence abandoned in favour of a logorrhoea of thought. What were we meant to, or what could we think, about evil in reaction to this production? That it is universal? That it creeps, seductively, around dreams of power, that it has the capability to inflame any heart with which it comes into contact with the most diabolical and total feelings of paranoia and persecution, such that the subject's only possible choices seem to lie in further evil? The production conveyed some of these things well, it just didn't do so with anything like enough application, consistency, or cohesiveness. It used a variegated canvass of symbols, without ever explaining either what these symbols portended, or allowing them to explain themselves. By the concluding sections annoyance at the welter of visual noise was winning out over any deep dramatic engagement, despite the captivating combination of chorus at full tilt, Daniel and his gilded brass players fervent as they had been all night, and the sight of vanquished evil on stage. The powerful impressions given earlier were receding ever more distantly into the past by this point, though I will admit with some perspective to finding myself somewhat better disposed to an evening of bold, failed adventure of this sort, than I would have been to another middling, repertorial reanimation of the kind so many houses serve up as their bread and butter.
Photos by Bernd Uhlig