Gran Teatre del Liceu 2022-23 Review: Macbeth (Cast A)
Sondra Ravdanovsky & Erwin Schrott’s artistry and beautiful singing save a flat production.By Mauricio Villa
Photo: David Ruano/Gran Teatre del Liceu
On the 25th of February 2023, Gran Teatro del Liceu streamed their new production of Verdi’s “Macbeth” with American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky singing Lady Macbeth, the leading female role. It was a huge success, garnering an explosive reaction from the audience at the curtain call, who showed great admiration towards the cast, orchestra, and chorus but also showed strong disapproval towards the creative team. The creative team only took the bow at opening night, though one supposes they reappeared at the curtain call for the live stream.
Absent Dramaturgy & Abstract Staging
The production was directed by Catalan visual artist Jaume Plensa, who essentially mounted several reproductions of his most-famous sculptures onstage, including Dream (2007, Saint Helens) and El alma del Ebro (Zaragoza, Aragón). Letters of the alphabet were an ongoing visual theme, seen on both the costumes and the stage, but I could not understand the meaning behind them. Most of the time, the letters did not form any words, and the only time there were full sentences, they did not come from Shakespeare, disproving my initial theory that this design choice had been an homage to the English writer and based on the fact that the opera’s libretto is based on one of Shakespeare’s plays.
Plensa situated the characters, chorus, and ballet around his sculptures, creating strong photographic scenes, yet there was no stage directing at all for the singers. This clearly exposed which artist had their own dramatic resources and which had none. The main problem is that strong photographic moments do not sustain the complex narrative of this opera. Pivotal scenes like Banquo’s death, the appearance of Banquo’s ghost at the banquet, or even Macbeth’s own death, were so heavily stylized that they became unclear, making it difficult for any audience member who did not already know this title to follow the story.
There were clear attempts to cover up these deficiencies, like the dubious lighting effects or the use of the ballet to compensate for the almost completely static nature of the chorus. It is a weak resource to use the ballet and leave the work up to the choreographer when there is no dramatic use of the choir beyond them entering the stage and standing still. Macbeth’s costume and makeup were red, and the chorus wore red hoodies and red gloves for Banquo’s murder scene, as well as red veils for the choir ‘Patria opressa!’ Those scenes were all illuminated in red: I suspect to represent ‘blood.’ Blood is an element continuously present in the libretto but non-existent in this production. When red costumes or red sets are illuminated with red light, moreover, they look white.
There was also an overabundance of scenes in black, with no sets or props at all. Famous English stage and film director Peter Brook used to say that one only needed ’empty space’ to create a stage. This aphorism turns out to be valuable only when there is also strong acting at work: which was not the case here. When all the elements and actions are abstract during a production, it just looks odd. The poor set, prop, and staging choices occasionally even elicited laughter from several members of the audience, most notably when the chorus appeared wearing realistic plastic tree branches for the final scene when the soldiers who besiege Macbeth’s castle disguise themselves with foliage to hide in the forest. Opera is a dramatic work with a narrative to be told. Strong visual productions, like Plensa’s new production of “Macbeth,” with absent dramaturgy or abstract staging, do not sustain a two-hour opera and would be more adequate for ‘experimental theatre’ or some other kind of creative work.
Radvanovsky and Schrott Shine
Luca Salsi portrayed the titular role. The Italian baritone is a great singer who possesses a velvet timbre with a modest projection and even vibrato throughout his entire register. He has the ability to sing amazing dynamics, like ‘Ma perché sento rizzarsi il crine,’ as well as mezza voce and long legato lines, as he showed in his Act four aria, ‘Pieta, rispetto, amore,’ and his opening andante, ‘Due vaticini compiuti or sono…’ He deals effortlessly with a high, uncomfortable tessitura, constantly navigating between E flat and F above the staff. The role of Macbeth does not require singing higher than F sharp and therefore does not have demanding high notes for the baritones, but the tessitura is very high and requires legato, sweet singing, which is difficult for heavy, low voices. His voice, however, had trouble carrying over the orchestra in forte, such as in his distant and barely audible final F in ‘non alzerò’ or during the Act two concertante. Salsi is a good musician, but unfortunately, that alone is not enough to perform opera nowadays. The absence of stage directing left Salsi empty of dramatic intent and meaning, and his interpretation was, therefore, flat. The baritone simply moved his arms and walked from one point of the stage to the next with no dramatic sense.
American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky sang the impossible role of Lady Macbeth. It is a role that requires strong low and high notes, a consistent middle register, coloratura, and the ability to sing pianissimi as well as dynamics up to a high D flat. The role seems to be written for her. It is logical that a soprano who has in her repertoire “Tosca” and “Aida” at the same time as “Norma” or the three Donizetti “Tudor Queens” can give true justice to such an impossible vocal. She sang the four arias that this role has with determination and strong secure high notes, like the high Cs that are present in such arias as ‘Vieni! T’affretta!’ and ‘La luce langue.’ Her clean coloratura and roulades were present in her Act One cabaletta ‘Or tutti sorgete…’ which she sang twice, as written, and her Act two brindisi.
We were treated to her impossibly loud chest voice low notes, like the D flats and the low C in the ‘somnambulism scene.’ Here we also heard her soaring, incredible pianissimi, such as the B flat of the cadenza, and the stratospheric high D flat which she sang facing the audience, totally exposed at the edge of the stage. She sounded menacing and aggressive during her arias and her scenes with Macbeth in Acts one and two. She managed to color her voice to portray doubt, embarrassment, and shame in the repetition of the brindisi as she reacted to her husband’s madness upon seeing the ghost of Banquo—whose execution he had just ordered—in front of the court at the banquet. This was in clear contrast to the bombastic and joyful first verse.
Radvanovsky portrayed a strong woman in love with her husband and determined to do whatever was needed for her ambition and for the sake of her husband’s rise to the throne. This was not the cliché, ‘evil’ woman that is usually portrayed. She managed to portray the dramatic arc of a strong woman being reduced to a weak, remorseful human being who relives, all over again, the murder of the king and Banquo. Her ‘somnambulism scene’ was the highlight of her performance, both vocally and dramatically. A role which has, over the course of the entire night, demanded strong forte singing and lies in the middle of the voice with constant ascensions to high notes suddenly resolves into low, dramatic writing which does not go higher than an A flat, except at the very end.
At the same time, it now demands multiple dynamics and decrescendos, with the impossible B flat and D flat in pianissimi or ‘un fil di voce,’ as marked in Verdi’s score. It is very difficult to keep the voice fresh and maintain total breath control at the end of the night while singing such strong, low notes, as Radvanovsky did in ‘o maledetta!’ She produced diminuendos in A flats like in ‘co’suoi balsami non può’ as well as awesome pianissimi high notes. The amazing skill which the soprano showed by singing the low register in a strong chest voice and the middle range up to A flat forte while maintaining ethereal high notes proves her vocal technique and flexibility.
Her vocal instrument is exceptional. Dark, big voices like hers usually load the voice by singing forte in the low and middle range of the voice, consequently losing easiness in the higher notes. But Radvanovsky’s voice defies every theory of vocal technique: that is why she is unique. She managed to fill the emptiness of the staging with her emotions, transmitting her feelings and weakness in the final scene even while holding a light in the same position for almost the entirety of the scene—which did not allow her to move her arms—and wearing a cloak with a hood—which partially hid her face. Her vocal characterization of that scene was memorable, as she gave a different emphasis and color to every line and word. I have said before that Sondra Ravdanovsky will be a part of opera history because her voice and artistry are both exceptional. This performance reassured my statement.
The short role of Banquo was portrayed by Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott. He has barely 15 minutes of singing but sings one of the most beautiful arias written for basses, ‘Come dal cel precipita.’ Here Schrott showed his warm timbre, long legato lines, and strong high notes, which were especially noticeable in the final E natural of ‘E di terror.’ The singer’s dramatic resources helped him make his scenes believable and compelling, even in the scene where he appears as a ghost in Act two, where the staging, costuming, and makeup did not help at all.
Italian tenor Francesco Pio Galasso sang the supportive role of Macduff. He sings mostly in ensemble, with the exception of his Act four aria, ‘Ah! La paterna mano.’ His voice sounded guttural, small, and distant. His diction was impeccable, and his fraseo was beautiful. But his timbre and lack of projection marred his performance. His interpretation was flat and meaningless, even though his character—as also happens with Banquo—plays an important role in the development of the drama, despite the shortness of his stage time.
In the Pit
Spanish conductor Josep Pons presented an uncut version of “Macbeth”—probably the 1874 second Italian version Verdi wrote—with the complete ballet music and alternative ending, but with the addition of Macbeth’s aria ‘Mal per me,’ from the 1847 version. He took no risks in tempi, and knew how to balance the orchestra sound with the singers, being able to play forte or create moments of exciting tension, like in the Act two concertante, the Act four scene with Macbeth and the witches, and the ‘somnambulism scene.’ His work was adequate and correct but did not compensate for the static, flat staging. The orchestra and chorus of Gran Teatre del Liceu met his exacting standards, offering a lamenting, intimate interpretation of ‘Patria opressa,’ which was warmly received by the audience.
An abstract, modern production of Verdi’s “Macbeth,” focused on the work of the artist Jaume Plensa, which turned out to be extremely static, flat, and dramatically confusing, saved by the performances of Sondra Ravdanovsky and Erwin Schrott, who both filled the emptiness of the staging with their artistry and beautiful singing.