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Opéra de Lyon 2017-18 Review – Macbeth: Ivo van Hove Turns Shakespeare & Verdi Into a “Bonfire of the Vanities” Video Game

Muttering the word “Macbeth” in a theatre is worse than hollering “Free Booze” at an AA meeting. The so-called “Macbeth curse” has existed since Shakespeare’s regicidal highland fling first appeared in 1606. Legend has it that on the opening night Lady Macbeth (played as Elizabethan/Stuart traditions demanded by a teenage boy) took method acting a bit far and dropped dead.

Nowadays the real curse of Verdi’s “Macbeth” is that it attracts every reprobate Regietheater regisseur from Rovaniemi to Rarotonga. There was Barrie Kosky’s naked hermaphrodite witches in Zurich, Peter Mussbach’s science fiction/Noh theatre in Berlin, Christian Räth’s military putsch in Vienna, and Martin Kušej’s depository of skulls in Munich, so Ivo van Hove’s “Wall Street” mis-en-scène in Lyon was probably no less preposterous. In up-dating Shakespeare’s historical drama from 11th century Scotland to a New York stockbroker’s office in 2012, van Hove rejected profound Shakespearian psychological insight, medieval social mores and ancient Scots clan law in favour of inescapably one-dimensional Wall Street stereotypes who merely extend the concept of “hostile takeover” to include multiple homicides. In his programme notes, Van Hove makes the extraordinary assertion that if Verdi was alive in the 21st century, he would have chosen a similar setting. One might suggest that the consummate musical dramatist would have found shallow, money-obsessed Gordon Gecko clones as fascinating as a stale haggis.

A Wall Street Video Game

For some years now, van Hove’s production footprint has been the use of video cameras to plaster distended images of singers’ faces onto screens above the stage. Such an idea might be suitable for a “Live from the Met” cinema broadcast,  but in an actual opera theater, the device is intrusive and ultimately lacking in substance. The close-in video gimmick backfired during the premiere when the young Russian tenor singing Macduff made some major mistakes during “Ah, la paterna mano” and his anguished facial expressions were cruelly magnified onto the screen behind. Grainy CCTV footage through a gauze scrim showing the murders of Duncan and Banquo worked better, but the roving cameramen amid the “Occupy Wall Street” hoi polloi reduced the dramatic climax of the opera to a bad reality TV show.

In Jan Versweyveld’s stage design there was no barren heath, no Castello Macbetto, no banquet hall, no witches’ cave, no English-Scots border and no battlefield above Birnam Wood – just a single, open-plan, over-lit stock traders’ office space. Computer work-stations circled the perimeters and there was an enormous Imax screen in the centre onto which various images were projected. There were frequent rapid flashes of huge green binary numbers which could have affected anyone prone to epilepsy. Verdi purists were already suffering. Night and darkness should be the norm in “Macbeth” with frequent references in the text ranging from Lady Macbeth’s “Tu, notte, ne avvolgi di tenebre immota” and “Notte desiata provvida veli” to Banquo’s assassins’ “Sparve il sol, la notte or regni” but in van Hove’s interior staging, everything was as bright as a Klieg light show.

The dramatis personae were all directly involved in the Wall Street firm (Duncan Bradstreet?) with Duncan as President & CEO and Macbeth and Banquo presumably Executive Vice-Presidents. Macduff was a slightly stroppy intern. The witches were avid traders glued to computer monitors predicting shifts in share prices and generating sheaves of useless print-outs. It was a bit like a dark “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” where the secretary is definitely not a pet.

Textual anomalies were prolific such as the second line of the libretto in which Witch #2 speaks of “slaughtering a boar.” Every lowly intern on Wall Street knows about Bull and Bear markets but a “Boar Market” would be novel. Americans generally play fast and lose with olde worlde rank and titles with dubious additions to Debretts such as “Count” Bassey and “Duke” Ellington, but Scots Thanes, Ladies and Kings are not exactly commonplace in Wall Street in-house telephone directories. Lady Macbeth received the “Nel dì della vittoria” letter by SMS which seemed a bit redundant as Macbeth was standing a few metres away and “Ambizioso spirto tu sei Macbetto” was sung directly at her irresolute spouse. Probably too long for a Tweet. Banquo’s ghost had the credibility of an Arthur Andersen annual audit.

It seemed that van Hove has never been to an end of week drinks party on Wall Street. During the Brindisi, trays with glasses of wine are left untouched. At most Goldman Sachs shindigs, the locusts would have wolfed down the last dreg of alcohol, not to mention more illegal stimulants, long before Lady Macbeth had even reached “calice.” When Macbeth threatens the witches with his non-existent sword they are blithely dismissive. A Trojan virus would have been a better ultimatum.

Not only are textual absurdities rife, but van Hove also tinkers with the plot. After “Pietà, rispetto, amore,” Macbeth doesn’t need to hear “È morta la regina” because he has already strangled his somnambulist spouse. The Scots refugees rise up against Macbeth’s usurpation not with branches of Birnam Wood but rather “Occupy Wall Street” placards, many of which were written in French. It seems unlikely that the Alliance Française was actively en fraternité with the 99 percenters. The final Hove-ian “enhancement” of Shakespeare’s play and Francesco Maria Piave’s text was that despite Macduff confirming that “Colà da me trafitto,” Macbeth is far from dead but sits bug-eyed on a sofa looking like Nick Leeson caught out by the board of Barings.

Can the Singers Save Shakespeare & Verdi?

With so much ersatz stock market silliness, it was left to Verdi’s music to salvage what was left.  Opéra de Lyon Studio member Louis Zaitou was an agreeable looking Malcolm but far too small in voice for Verdi. The future king was vocally and dramatically totally overshadowed by Macduff and almost inaudible in the sextet during the “Schiudi, inferno” ensemble.

Italian bass Roberto Scandiuzzi is no stranger to the role of Banquo and scored a considerable success in David Poutney’s production in Zurich, but that was in 2001. In this instance Scandiuzzi seemed ill-at ease as a Manhattan money-man with scruples and the voice was certainly not as resonant as it once was. There was some excellent word coloring during “Studia il passo, o mio figlio,” but the lower range of the tessitura, such as the deep F on “che ci scavò,” lacked sonority.

As a last minute replacement for Arseny Yakovlev whose ill-fated “Ah, la paterna mano” caused an abrupt departure from the production, Macduff was sung by Leonardo Capalbo. The American lyric-spinto tenor has performed the role in important houses such as Dresden, Berlin and Chicago and from his first “Di destarlo per tempo il Re m’impose,” it was clear the substitute singer was in total control. With a virile squillo and technically impeccable breath support, Capalbo brought an exciting Italianate del Monaco/Corelli timbre to this relatively small role with a killer aria. Totally unfazed by the video cameraman literally in his face, the accomplished actor/tenor gave a passionate and musically outstanding interpretation of the show-stopper scena. A pristine top E flat-F natural on the opening “figli” was followed by a beautifully phrased “E me fuggiasco, occulto” with a powerful crescendo on “Possa a colui le braccia” rising to a spine-tingling top A. Unsurprisingly Capalbo received thunderous applause.

And of the Macbeths?

Similar to Scandiuzzi, Baku-born baritone Elchin Azizov never seemed comfortable as van Hove’s spineless Sherman McCoy archetype. There was some impressive vocalistion in the “Mi si affaccia un pugnal!” monologue even if he had only a computer mouse instead of a dagger to sing to.  “Orrenda imago!” was dramatically hooty and “Solco sanguigno la tua lama irriga!” showed good mezzavoce and portamento.  The climatic “Che nel cielo ti chiama o nell’inferno” revealed Azizov’s more refulgent top register with solid top F naturals and D flats. The inclusion of the “Perfidi! All’anglo contro me v’unite!” recitative gave some scope for more interesting introspection but the following “Pietà, rispetto, amore” aria was rushed. Perhaps Azizov was hoping for the closing bell to ring and bring an end to the malapropos mis-en-scène.

Although Verdi considered the “vulgar, yet bizarre and original” witches the most important protagonists in the opera, the role of Lady Macbeth is certainly the most interesting because of its immense vocal and dramatic challenges. The blast with which great Lady Macbeth’s such as Callas, Rysanek or Verrett boomed the first E natural on “Ambizioso” and following semiquaver roulade to top C on “e retrocede!” gives a fair idea of how the soprano will handle the rest of the vocal pyrotechnics and Susanna Branchini didn’t really get off the starting grid.

Admittedly she looked determined enough in a Margaret Thatcher in Prime Ministerial mode with power-suits and Plaster-of-Paris coiffure, but vocally there was just not enough clout.  The “Vieni t’affretta!” cavatina is marked “Grandioso” but sounded more like “Son l’umile ancella”. The following “Or tutti sorgete, ministri infernali” cabaletta lacked metal although there was plenty of vibrato.  There wasn’t much fire in the top B flats and low chest note E flats lacked punch. Verdi is noted for saying that he preferred a soprano to sing Lady Macbeth with a “devilish, ‘hard, stifled and dark sound,” but this doesn’t exculpate indifferent singing. Vocally Branchini was more comfortable in the slower paced “La luce langue,” but the low B natural chest notes lacked resilience. The top C fermata on “tue fiamme” in the “Schiudi, inferno” chorus and concluding interpolated high D flat were pinched and stringent, but there were some agreeable mezzavoce sonorities in “Una macchia è qui tuttora,” even if the final piano top D flat was tentative and quickly abandoned.

Redemption At Last

Two factors redeemed an otherwise disagreeable performance. Firstly the chorus of the Opéra de Lyon managed to overcome the obstacles of the mis-en-scène with some very solid singing and concertante sections such as “Schiudi, inferno, la bocca ed inghiotti,” “La patria tradita,” and “Salve, o re!” were rousing and refulgent. The crisp changes from fff to ppp in “Schiudi, inferno” were particularly impressive.

The highlight of the performance however was the conducting of  Opéra de Lyon’s immensely talented musical director Daniele Rustioni. Tempi were tenacious and pungent without being rushed and there was plenty of orchestral color in the woodwinds and brass. The frantic string accompaniment to “Schiudi, inferno” was fierce and fiery and Rustioni’s attention to frequent marcati and sforzandi consistently outstanding. The sprightly alla marcia passages were foot-tappy taut. Although mindful of the singers, the young Milanese maestro wasn’t going to keep Verdi’s orchestral forces subdued and there were some roof-raising orchestral tuttis, especially in the concertante sections with a tsunami of sound in the “Colga l’empio” passage of the Act One finale.

This production of “Macbeth” may have had nothing to do with Shakespeare or Piave, but it did prove that Verdi’s extraordinarily powerful music was immune to any Belgian blight put upon it. But as Banquo observed, “Oh, qual orrenda notte!”

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