Teatro alla Scala 2022-23 Review: Macbeth

Luca Salsi & Ekaterina Semenchuk Are Forces in ‘Macbeth’

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Teatro alla Scala / Brescia – Amisano)

On Dec. 7, 2021, the Teatro alla Scala opened a new production of “Macbeth” by Davide Livermore.

A season later the company is reviving the production, which showcases the 1865 version, while including the frequently cut ballet and “Macbeth’s final aria.

Dystopia & Lots of Movement

The production is a cinematic spectacle that uses projections to immersive effect. The opening prelude sees Macbeth driving through a forest and into a dystopian city that looks like it came out of “Blade Runner.”

Then, throughout the entire evening, we witness this city change. At one point it rotates. During Lady Macbeth’s first aria, lightning strikes take place. During the banquet scene, the city is ablaze with neon lights.

One of the most interesting motifs used by the projections is the dark clouds that appear every time the witches appear or when Macbeth is about to commit a crime.

Then there is the projection of the red blood that spills all over the screen during the ballet. That is perhaps one of the most imaginative as Macbeth brings the red to the screen and dancers start breaking through until they arrive at a forest where they meet Banquo. They are then brought back to the red when they become possessed by Lady Macbeth at the end of the ballet.

A final impressive projection is in the final act when Birnam Woods attacks and suddenly you see explosions throughout the screen.  These explosions continue until the end when the destroyed city is revealed. These inventive images ultimately keep the audience immersed in the familiar but transcendent tale.

That said, the production doesn’t always hit the marks. During the procession of apparitions, one would have expected Livermore to use the projections to create haunting images, but the results are simplistic in comparison to everything else we get to see. In fact, the procession of ghosts appears amongst the chorus members and even then the choreography could get messy as the kings got lost behind the chorus.

Then there were the constant set movements. You could say it was like a rotating stage but in this case, the sets were brought up and down using lifts. On numerous occasions, Livermore changed the location during the same scene. That could be seen during Lady Macbeth’s opening double aria, the first duet with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and even during the banquet scene. There was an elevator in the middle of the stage that fused these sets together. However, the constant movements often made it difficult to follow the singers, proving quite distracting. At many moments no movement felt more warranted; when Livermore delivered that in the Act four scene of “Patria Oppressa,” the result was pristine. Here the director kept the staging simple with just a fence that showed the imprisoned chorus.

Costumes by Gianluca Falaschi were effective at telling the story as we see Lady Macbeth always in red. First, she is in a red dress reminiscent of an army uniform and later she wears a red gown during the banquet scene. Her last costume is a red slip.

Meanwhile, Macbeth is always in black and grey suits that always have some velvet, allowing him to stand out from the rest of the chorus. The chorus opens with blues in Acts one and two and later obtains softer colors including pale oranges in Act three and four.

The ballet choreographed by Daniel Ezralow was brilliant as each section invoked the spirit of each of the character’s minds. Macbeth is seen with a sword killing while Banquo is seen alongside his son who will be the future king. Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth invokes madness.

Salsi the Conquerer

In the title role, Luca Salsi reprised the acclaimed turn he first brought to La Scala in 2021. On this evening, Salsi showed why he is one of the most in-demand baritones in the world as he delivered an outstanding performance that only got better as the evening went on. From the moment he arrived on stage, one could sense that this was not a strong-willed Macbeth. Instead, he was a vulnerable figure that becomes increasingly erratic with each act.

In the opening act, as he is told he will be Thane of Cawdor, his “due vaticini compiuti or soon” was sung with an airy tone and with disconnected phrases that emphasized the hesitancy in Macbeth as well as the haunted feeling upon hearing the news. Only in his first interaction with Lady Macbeth, during the recitative “O donna mia,” did we see Salsi’s Macbeth strengthen and display vocal authority that emphasized that  he was capable of anything.

Before committing the first crime in his soliloquy “Mi si affacia un pugnal,” Salsi brought back that horror and tremor to his timbre and visage. You could hear hesitancy in his pianissimo phrases and in each subsequent line, the voice obtained a weaker character even as he went toward “E Deciso! Quel bronze ecco m’invita!” That phrase had an airy quality to it and as he descended to the final lines “o nell’inferno,” it felt like he was regretful for his actions.

During his following interactions with Lady Macbeth, Salsi’s Macbeth obtained a violent character. At one point in Act two, he grabbed Ekaterina Semenchuk’s face almost as if he was going to rip it off, and then during their Act three duet, “Ora di morte,” he took Semenchuk toward the edge of the elevator and acted upon his animalistic and sexual instincts.

The Act three apparition scene and aria were one of Salsi’s most intense moments of the evening as he came onto the scene with great force and command and slowly descended into madness in his passage “fuggi real fantasima.” He opened the passage with command but as he started seeing the apparitions, he began to emote some of the lines and his phrases became more accented. His “via spaventosa imagine” brought out the fear in his voice which had some lightness and airiness. Here, he threw himself on floor, furthering Macbeth’s frailty. The scene climaxed with “muori, fatal progenie” and “Ah! Che non hai tu vita” with Salsi exploding into the fullness of his voice  to express terror and fear.

In Act four, Salsi’s “pieta rispetto, onore” was sung like a lament. I have never heard this aria sung with such remorse and Salsi’s legato phrases and his piano line made one feel for his Macbeth. It was also impressive how he held out notes, crescendoed, and descrescendoed phrases with tremendous ease. Even when he thundered “Oh la Victoria!” during the following recitative, you could already sense that Macbeth was already resigned to dying.

The inclusion of “Mal per me che m’affidai” is a strong conclusion to Macbeth. Here, Salsi gave the small aria a very airy quality that emphasized the injured Macbeth succumbing to his fate. He slowly gained vocal strength until he sang “vil corona e sol per te!” with a fortissimo sound that made it sound more like one last call of desperation. It was a perfect way to end a strong performance.

Credit: Teatro alla Scala / Brescia – Amisano

Semenchuk Imposes Her Will

In the role of Lady Macbeth Ekaterina Semenchuk portrayed the lady as an imposing woman figuratively and literally by the end, drunk on power.

The moment she walked on stage she brought a potent stage presence that defined a fearless Lady. Her opening “Ambizioso spirto” blazed with directness and brought out Semenchuk’s dark middle voice. That led to her first aria “vieni t’afretta” which was sung with force and smooth defiant lines. Perhaps some more range of dynamics would have been welcomed but the mezzo was just warming up. Her subsequent “Or tutti sorgete” also had some shortcomings in the higher register and some of the coloratura runs could have been cleaner in the first repeat. But in the second repeat, she sang with more direction and determination that any mistake was quickly forgotten.

Given that Semenchuk is a mezzo, it’s no surprise that “La Luce Langue,” which lies much lower in the voice, was one of her crowning achievements of the night. Frightened by Macbeth’s violence toward her, Semenchuk began the aria with a pianissimo sound that showed some hesitancy on the first “nuovo delitto.” Her second repetition of the line was sung with a bewitching piano as if she had become possessed by the thought of more power and quickly sang the “e necessario!” with mesmerizing strength. The subsequent lines “ai trapassati…a loro un requiem” were perhaps some of the most haunting of the evening as Semenchuk decrescendoed into almost a whisper effect that climaxed to the phrase “requiem.” Here she gave the “m” a slight accent as she waved her hands with chilling effect as her voice died into silence. During the second half of the aria “O volutta del soglio,” the mezzo dug into her vocal core before quickly going back to a demonic piano on the repetition of “O volutta del soglio.” That quickly climaxed to an intense high C that Semenchuk relished and sustained. 

Semenchuk struggled a little in the banquet scene’s “Brindisi.” The aria requires coloratura and a higher tessitura and while the diva showcased great flexibility, the higher notes showed some of her limitations. The top notes sounded strained at times and some of the coloratura was smudged. However, on the second repetition of the aria, after Macbeth has seen Banquo’s apparition, Semenchuk used the character’s anger to her advantage. Here she sang with a staccato phrase and accented each coloratura line cutting the high notes very short. This accented the anger and disappointment. And it didn’t hurt that the chorus copied her phrase and the orchestra was also heavier and more staccato.

In this production, Lady Macbeth is asked to dance in the ballet, and while Semenchuk didn’t quite follow any of the original choreography, the mezzo came out drunk with a cocktail glass on hand. She moved around the stage with the glass throughout the number with such force that you could see this was a woman who was on the edge and slowly moving toward madness.

Like “La Luce Langue,” “Una macchia…e qui tutt’ora” was one of Semehcuk’s best moments. As she walked on an elevated edge with a harness attached to her, the mezzo displayed impeccable legato lines that showed her weighty middle voice. Her opening phrases were sung with a more smooth legato than one is used to hearing and as the aria went on, Semenchuk’s voice brought out a delicacy that displayed the Lady’s madness but at the same time created an eery atmosphere. Even in the higher phrases like “e mai pulire,” there was a delicacy to her voice that Semenchuk held out some lines with a gorgeous tone. Her lower chest notes were also on display here but they were never accentuated. In the final phrases of the aria that rises to a D flat, the mezzo chose to sing off stage; unfortunately, this proved the rockiest section of the aria as she rushed through the demanding line and held the top note as short as she could.

The Duets

While the Macbeths have a fair number of solos, Verdi added much more interaction to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s relationship. Mainly they have two contrasting duets.

The first “Fatal mia donna! un mormore!” and the second “Ora di morte.” In their first duet “Fatal mia donna!,” Salsi played a haunted Macbeth, while Semenchuk brought her wicked character through her resonant chest voice and sang the coloratura notes with staccato phrases that emphasized her defiance. The contrast was also evident as Salsi sang “Allor questa voce m’intsi nel petto” crescendoing to a loud forte that emphasized his character’s fear. In the following passage Semenchuk’s “Ma, dimmi, altar voce no part d’udire?” was sung with confidence and a dominant chest voce that defined this Lady’s aggressive and ambitious spirit. It also didn’t hurt that in the blocking, Semenchuk always stood over Salsi who sat for a part of the duet.

The duet in Act three “Ora di morte” showed a Macbeth that was equal to Lady Macbeth. Salsi and Semenchuk both sang with drive and craze. Their tones were filled with intensity as they escalated toward their high ranges and each repetition of “vendetta” was more staccato” than the previous.

Strong Support

In the role of Macduff, Fabio Sartori started the evening with a little rasp in his voice but quickly warmed up and sang with an ardent sound that easily filled the hall in the Act one and two ensembles. In Act three, he sang “Ah la Paterna mano” with a gorgeous lyrical line that showcased his smooth legato line.

The role of Banquo was interpreted by Jongmin Park and his booming bass. That was most evident in “Come dal ciel precipita” where he gave the aria anguish and resonant clarity. While he no longer sings after Act two, Park was an ominous figure on stage as he appeared in the banquet scene. He towered over Salsi’s Macbeth covered in blood. His small appearance in the ballet was also welcome. Park’s voice in his opening duet with Salsi’s Macbeth” “due vaticini compiuti or sono” also displayed a sound that melded well with the baritone.

Marily Santoro as the Dama di Lady Macbeth showcased strong support in the ensembles as she brought beaming high notes and a gorgeous tone during the sleepwalking scene. Jinxu Xiahou was also fantastic as Malcolm in his duet with Sartori as the two voices fused together and sounded like one.

One can not write about “Macbeth” without the chorus. The chorus is essentially the third lead of this opera as they have to play witches, bandits, oppressed prisoners, Macbeth’s army, and Macbeth’s aristocratic guests. Each chorus has a different musical style. The witches played by the female chorus were impressive creating some crazed moments with the help of the choreography and sang with wit and power. This was especially seen in “S’allontarono” in which it seemed at times like they were possessed. Then in Act three, they opened with the haunting “Tre Volte Miagola La Gatta In Fregola” performing it with atmospheric tones. Then in “Ondine, e silfidi,” they created dreamlike and playful tones that were in complete contrast to their previous choruses.

As the bandits, the male chorus was sneaky, never going above a mezzo piano, and as Macbeth’s army, they were defiant with booming sound. Perhaps the most show-stopping moment of the evening was “Patria Oppressa” where you could feel the nostalgia and tragedy as the ensemble opened with a piano tone and slowly built to a forte that resounded throughout the theater. The choral moment slowly decrescendoed toward the end and the chorus received a rousing ovation.

In the ensembles of Act one and two, they provided an imposing sound that gave the music great potency. And the final “Macbeth, Macbeth ov’e?” was performed with triumph while the female chorus’ passage “salgano mie grazie a te” was slowed to create an evangelical feel. At the climax when the two musical moments combined, you could hear the chorus crescendoing toward the victorious high notes on “gloria.”

The orchestra was led by Giampaolo Bisanti to mixed results. While he brought strength to the choral moments by conducting the orchestra to its maximum volume, that sometimes led to some of the percussive moments sounding too bombastic and brought out the clichéd banda sound. Some of the entrances were also hesitant, like the interlude before “Or Tutti Sorgete,” which featured some messy violin.

However, in “Patria Oppressa,” Bisanti brought out an ethereal quality to the strings that expressed the delicacy of the music. The final chorus “Macbeth! Macbeth ov’e”?” was also a standout as Bisanti’s energetic conducting brought out bright colors in the orchestra and he contrasted beautifully between the march-like male chorus and the more sunny female singing that quickly fused together to create an ecstatic finale.

Overall this was an effective “Macbeth,” that while sometimes marred by its messy production, was brought to life by its wonderful cast.


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