Teatro La Fenice 2018-19 Review: Macbeth

Myung Whun Chung & Damiano Michieletto Team Up For Passionate & Psychologically-Probing Rendition Of Verdi’s Shakespeare Adaptation

By Alan Neilson

Set among the blasted heaths and mists of ancient Scotland, “Macbeth” is indeed a tale of murder most foul, in which an assassin’s dagger is never far from someone’s back. The bodies pile up; King Duncan is first to meet his end, murdered in his sleep by Macbeth, followed by Banco, Macduff’s wife and his children’s murders. It is all done to secure the Scottish crown for Macbeth and his future heirs.

However, as in any drama of quality, motivations are never so crude. In Shakespeare’s tragedy, to which Verdi stays true, there are three protagonists: Macbeth, his wife, Lady Macbeth and the Witches, all of whose motivations and responsibilities in the crimes are not so transparently laid out. It is also a tragedy in its true sense, for Macbeth is a great man, a loyal general who has just defeated an invading Norwegian army, but who succumbs to the temptations of power, and falls into a mire of betrayal, assassination and eventual self-destruction. But where lies the responsibility?

This is the question which directors of both Shakespeare’s play and Verdi’s opera must attempt to answer. A case can be made for any of the protagonists as being the ringmaster in this circus of death. The successful 2015 production by Robert Wilson for the Teatro Comunale, Bologna placed the responsibility clearly onto the witches, who pulled the strings of the characters, who acted out their roles like puppets.

Other productions look towards the role played by Lady Macbeth, who is clearly an obsessive bent on power, and have produced a variety of readings, including feminist perspectives which see her as a woman trying to compete in a male-dominated society, in which violence is the norm, but when directed by a woman is seen as particularly despicable.

However, whoever dictates the events which unfold, it is Macbeth’s behavior which eventually must come under scrutiny, for it is he who plunges the knife into the sleeping king, and orders the deaths of Banco and his children and Macduff’s family. Even if it is accepted that he is not the prime mover, why is he so easily manipulated?

Losing A Child

The answer to this question is the starting point for Damiano Michieletto’s production of “Macbeth” for Venice’s La Fenice. In doing so, however, he has decided to go beyond the text of the libretto and of Shakespeare’s play by providing Macbeth with a backstory, for which there is little or no textual basis. Macbeth had a daughter who died, an event which has left him psychologically damaged, one which he constantly obsesses over and is unable to come to terms with. Throughout the performance, the role of children is highlighted. When King Duncan arrives at Macbeth’s castle he is greeted by its household and guests, including the children, of whom he makes a big fuss, much to Macbeth’s ire and jealousy.

The Witches, whether real or imagined is unimportant, are seen by Macbeth as a portal to the afterlife, through which he can communicate with the dead. His mental state is so badly damaged that he is able to view killing Banco’s children as an act of revenge or even as a possible solution. Either way, he cannot accept Banco’s children as future Kings, when his own child has died. Lady Macbeth, unable to bare children herself, is suffering from her own demons, which she transfers into an obsessive desire for power, and seizes upon Macbeth’s mental frailty to exploit the situation, in order to gain the throne.

So it is that Michieletto lays the foundations for the narrative; it is Lady Macbeth who is the driving force behind the bloody events, which she is only able to carry through, however, because of Macbeth’s mental trauma. Although Michieletto’s reading goes beyond the written text, he nevertheless produces a plausible context for the dramatic events; the highlighting of children at significant junctures, sometimes real, sometimes imagined, helps explain why Macbeth is so willingly manipulated by his wife.

In its own terms, it was an imaginative and gripping presentation. Of course, whether one can accept such a fundamental intervention on the part of the director, will determine the extent to which it is possible to engage with his presentation.

The staging, designed by Paolo Fantin, focused on the psychological aspects of the work. It was an empty stage, without almost any props, instead heavy use was made of a light, white plasticated wrapping, which was hung from above on a roll, and was frequently ripped down or had holes punched through it. This represented the thin film which separates the real from the world of illusion, the afterlife or the unconscious, and captured the dislocation which envelops the characters, and one of the factors that make “Macbeth” such a powerful work. Fantin’s staging was enhanced by the dark lighting, with sudden contrasts of bright white strip lighting along the sides of the sets. The costumes, designed by Carla Teti were modern day designs and added absolutely nothing to the drama, although neither did they distract.

An Electric Reading

The standout performance was undoubtedly the Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice, under the direction of Myung Whun Chung, who gave an electrifying presentation. Brilliantly capturing the darkness and terror at the heart of the work, in what was almost an exaggeratedly driven performance, Chung filled the auditorium with great power as he built the crescendos into horrifying and breathtaking climaxes. Yet at the same time, he was able to elicit detail and subtlety, in which the orchestra’s individual sections were clearly audible, their voices precisely defined.

It was also a performance which captured the contrasts of Verdi’s score; dynamics, coloring and its rich textural qualities were all wonderfully explored. It was a compelling, insistent and hair-raising presentation, and played no small part in bringing Michieletto’s staging alive.

Claudio Marino Moretti produced an equally superb performance from the Coro del Teatro La Fenice. As the witches, they sang and acted with energy and passion, subtlety and power, generating a suitably macabre atmosphere. The choruses were punchy and forceful, the lines well-articulated and arresting. By contrast, the slow and mournful chorus of the displaced Scottish people, “Patria oppressa!,” a hymn to the nation’s suffering, was sung with strong feeling of loss, in an emotionally powerful presentation.

Polar Opposites

All the soloists essayed their roles well. Vittoria Yeo in the role of Lady Macbeth gave the most potent performance, portraying a worryingly convincing picture of malevolence. The curtain rose as she is comforting her husband, which was so at odds with the rest of her performance that one can only assume it was part of her controlling personality rather than any sign of genuine affection.

Her singing was frequently edgy and agitated, often spitting out her words with venom, and rarely managing to settle, which splendidly captured the evil nature of her character, who eventually is overcome by her own obsession. In her sleepwalking scene, Yeo wanders amongst children’s swings – as she confronts her own demons – and gave a thrillingly expressive performance, her voice sometimes soaring softly, but more frequently with a hard edge, underscored with emotional intensity. It was strident, at times gentle, but always with an unsettling air, highlighted by pointed emphases. Like the orchestra, this was a driven performance, one in which Yeo successfully managed to maintain the necessary level of energy and emotional intensity.

Luca Salsi in the title role put in an excellent singing performance, capturing Macbeth’s psychological torment wonderfully. His well-supported baritone has a pleasing timbre, which he inflected with an array of dynamic and colorful shadings, full of emotional stresses, in an expressive and versatile presentation. The Act four aria “Pietà, rispetto, amore” was the individual highpoint of his performance, in which he displayed the beauty of his clearly articulated phrasing, giving voice to his realization that there is to be no love for him in this life, even if he survives the forthcoming battle. Salsi span out the long melodic lines securely, powerfully and with beauty, underpinned by real passion, capturing his heartfelt emotions. It was a fine performance, indeed. On the acting side, however, he showed a tendency to emphasize the varying emotional states with the same level of force, so that at times it became a little one-paced.

The bass, Simon Lim made a strong impression in the role of Banco. His strong dark voice providing him with a moral authority, which was sufficiently powerful to set him apart from the evil that is pitted against him, and which also made him a convincing taunt to Macbeth’s conscience. His opening duet, “Due vaticini compiuti or sono” with Macbeth in Act one showed off both voices to good effect, Lim’s voice contrasting and blending superbly with Salsi’s, as his suspicions about Macbeth’s intentions start to take shape.

Stefano Secco put in a strong performance in the role of Macduff. He sang his aria “Ah la paterna mano” standing in front of his dead family. It was a strong rendition, which displayed flexibility, a pleasing tone, and emotional force. Marcello Nardis played the relatively minor role of King Malcolm to good effect, as did Elisabetta Martorana as Lady Macbeth’s Lady-in-waiting.

It was excellent production with which to open La Fenice’s 2018-19 opera season, one that will be remembered for the fabulous performance of its orchestra under the splendid direction of Myung Whun Chung, along with its strong cast and interesting, if not visually spectacular, staging.


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