Royal Opera House Review 2021: Macbeth

Sound & Fury in Phyllida Lloyd’s Version of the Scottish Play – and Signifying Plenty

By Benjamin Poore
(Credit: © The Royal Opera / Clive Barda)

Covent Garden has a good line in Verdi revivals – Richard Eyre’s “Traviata” has been running over a quarter of a century; David McVicar’s “Rigoletto” lasted nearly two decades; and now Phyllida Lloyd’s “Macbeth” returns too, also nearly 20 years old.

It’s a production that has aged gracefully, with no signs of wear. Though chock full of spectacle, it creates plenty of psychological and dramatic space for its two principals to explore these rich and evocative roles from middle-period Verdi – here in the more expansive 1865 version. 

Lloyd’s production, set in a generic sort of medieval Persia, has many simple but graphic touches. The dagger that Macbeth hallucinates is a shaft of light, more imagined than supernatural; Macbeth’s visit to the Witches in Act three is a guilt-ridden fever dream, ending with a horrifying infanticide. It’s a work about illusion and misapprehension – power being the most illusory thing of all, whose ambivalent nature is represented by a literal gilded cage, in which Duncan is killed and Macbeth crowned. 

The Witches are not so much prophets of fate but tricksters who shape the action – aiding Banquo’s son in his escape, couriers for Macbeth’s opening report. At the climax of the opera, Malcolm tries to refuse the crown, but is forced by the people to take it up; the Witches clamber up the cage and surround him with a hungry look. The more things change, the more they stay the same. There is plenty of thrilling choreography – the dancers playing the Witches in the quasi-ballet of Act are terrifyingly jerky – boosted by eerie design choices – the golden toy procession announcing Duncan’s arrival at the castle, and the glittering procession of Banquo’s sons in Macbeth’s vision.

The only dud note is struck by the golden sequined costumes worn by Macbeth and his wife in Act two, which rustle rather foolishly like festive tinsel. Christmas does come earlier each year, they say. 

Making their Murderous Mark

Given Lisette Oropesa’s recent star turns at the Garden in both “Rigoletto” and “Traviata,” one might’ve risked diva fatigue with the starry presence of Anna Pirozzi in yet another Verdi vehicle. But she more than made her mark – most sensationally, perhaps, in a top note that soared over the massed choral and orchestral forces in the Act one finale. It’s a voice with real power and sharp definition – one senses that Pirozzi doesn’t always know where it’s going to go, but she was consistently accurate on the night. It’s a wildness that served the character, suggesting not just ambition, a kind of blind lust for power, but also a rage at the world around her. She moved with purpose and steel – a woman driven by something infernal.

Her Act one “Vieni t’affretta!” made for an electric opener. But she had control on her side too. The famous sleepwalking scene hosted ghostly softness, showcasing a velvety bottom register with shades of umber. 

Poor Macbeth – it’s his name on the poster, though invariably the soprano gets the biggest ovation. It was Simon Keenleyside’s fate, as we might expect, but he sang a blinder nonetheless.

He may not be a traditional Verdi baritone – less swagger and gurning machismo than one usually imagines – but marshals his vocal and dramatic resources smartly in this role. His more declamatory style suits the character’s vexed nature – there was a strong sense of internal conflict, of ruthlessness butting up against someone more vulnerable and uncertain, especially in the scene proceeding Duncan’s murder. (It also intensifies Verdi’s vision of a work more spoken than sung.)

His most conventionally beautiful singing was to be found in his final Act four “Pietà, rispetto, amore,” whose warm legato offered a moment of anguished tenderness. His death scene, Keenleyside guttering and rasping to the end, was knockout stuff. 

Günther Groissböck provided solid support as Banquo, though he was surprisingly uneven at the very bottom of his register, sounding somewhat washed out. Otherwise it was a grungy, stalwart performance, with plenty of steel in the voice – there was less legato than one might have liked in this repertoire, and a gruff approach which, although moody, sometimes made Verdi’s music feel a little clunky. But there’s no denying the impact of an atmospheric “Come dal ciel precipita,” which hooked into Paule Constable’s sepulchral lighting.   

It’s not much of an opera for tenors, but ascendant Verdi star David Junghoon Kim opened up the relatively limited role of Macduff with aplomb and vivacity; his sword fight with Keenleyside in the spinning golden cage was rather thrilling. His singing in the big final act number, urging the Scottish people to rise up and overthrow their tyrannical leader, was charged with revolutionary zeal. 

Next in Line?

A lot of eyes were on Daniele Rustioni in the pit. Rustioni has been widely tipped as a potential successor to Antonio Pappano as music director, and revivals such as these often function as auditions-by-association. By my reckoning he’s probably through to at least the second round of the recruitment process, not least on the strength of the audience response. 

It was lithe, characterful stuff throughout, with many of the trademarks associated with Pappano’s own conducting – sleek, sinuous phrasing, with moments of pointed lyricism. Rustioni summoned doom and dread from trombones and timpani in the work’s more fateful episodes. There is a keen eye for detailing, with smoky strings given wispy dynamic shading in the sleepwalking scene.

The music of Act three had a surprising gracefulness – more like Rossini than Verdi, in the best possible way, and this light-touch lyricism in Italianate repertoire would surely make him a perfect successor to Pappano. How ambitious is he? Let’s hope the incumbent doesn’t go the way of Duncan. 

It’s a great opera for the chorus – and William Spaulding’s choristers raised the roof consistently. Notwithstanding, that is, some ensemble wobbles with the Witches at the top of the show, who felt a little uncoordinated and could’ve done with a bit of venom – but they were deliciously nasty in Act three. Some bone-chilling, desolate Ss in “Patria oppressa” and full-throttle climaxes at the despairing discovery of Duncan’s body – a moment of terrific theatrical spectacle too – made for a thrilling evening.

The rather dour, determined joy of the final choral number gelled rather well with the production’s ambiguous conclusion – a superb meeting of direction and music. 

In sum, this revival was a major musical success that continued to make its case for the long-time production.


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