It doesn’t follow the correct age of the libretto but neither does it update the story to Nazi-Germany or Iraq. It illustrates the story when the director feels like it; sometimes in great detail and sometimes somewhat superficially. It mixes old and new elements without any consistency. It depends on surtitles in the theatre or titles on video as otherwise spectators wouldn’t understand what’s happening and at the same time often contradicts those same titles. In short these few sentences apply to the work of directors like McVicar, Pimlott, Vick, Carsen and even Beito in his less outrageous statements.
A few examples in this production. There is nothing that reminds one of Scotland. The men’s haircuts resemble the way the Franks wore their hair in the 7th century. Happily nobody is wielding a machine gun but every soldier wears a kind of grey Russian peasant costume à la Rasputin. Macbeth and Banquo wash their hands under a distinctly modern tap. Lady Macbeth is first seen in a bed, declines a bath and then receives king Duncan in that same night cloth. But she is seated in her bath just to wash her hands in the last act. And the armies of Macbeth and Malcom march around the sleeping king and queen while singing “Patria opressa” (yes, I know this is their nightmare). Macbeth and Banquo think the witches have “foul beards” without any witch having a single hair on their chin. Banquo exclaims the witches are “vanished” while the ladies continue their aerobics with a stick on the scene and so on. But, on the other hand, a cross with a bloodied corpse is raised when Macbeth gets the message the old Thane of Cawdor is executed. In the third act a child is ripped from the mother’s womb (not a pretty sight) during the prophecy of the witches. The ghost of Banquo even appears and carries the prescribed mirror. And the doctor in the fourth act has the obligatory lantern as well. I have the unpolitically correct idea that as theatre the third act is the strongest when the director sticks closely to the libretto.
The sets (Anthony Ward) consist mostly of padded walls and would you believe it represents a cell in a lunatic asylum ? Yes, you would because madness is one of the dearest themes in opera and you and I have already seen those sets in Don Carlos, Lucia and whenever somebody is not completely right in his or her mind. The other inevitable prop is a revolving open golden cage, a large cubicle though a few yards smaller than in the Graham Vick production of the same opera at La Scala. By now we no longer need the sleeve notes as experienced opera goers know that this is “a mental space on the scene, a habitat designed to explain the inner catastrophe, the metaphor of a brain in semi-darkness”.
Not that Phyllida Lloyd is without original ideas. The witches’ prophecies are probably so very correct because they assure their fulfillment. A witch, and not a soldier, delivers Macbeth’s letter to the Lady. And the witches save the life of Banquo’s son while he is pursued by the murderers. As Verdi was unwise enough not to write music for this indispensable scene, we get it as a pantomime. But the discovery in the fourth act after the madness aria that the queen has committed suicide really is an eye-opener. In short the typical mix of tradition and modern so that one leaves the theatre and the video somewhat relieved that after all the chance exists that Verdi would have recognized his own work.
The singers clearly believe in their roles. Carlos Álvarez starts out with the voice we know so well from his Verdi and Zarzuela CDs. It is a full sound, suitably dark brown and with a good top. Imaginative Verdian phrasing and a differentiation in sound level are not his forte. At least not in the first act. But then and to my surprise the voice becomes even more burnished, he starts to act with it and by the third act he has become a great Macbeth: vocally and histrionically. His “Pietà, rispetto, amore” is an example of sustained tone and nuance and one almost regrets that the Paris version is chosen as this rids us of his “ Mal per me”. The public realizes it is watching a great performance and lustily applauds after his collapse in the third act. No, this doesn’t break the dramatic moment as the “Ondine e selfide” ballet section, usually cut in performance, is restored.
Maria Guleghina is not on the same level as the baritone. Oh she acts the hell out of her; indeed on video she even overacts, rolling her eyes, wringing her hands. She probably follows all directions she got from the director and the fault is not hers as the Liceu in Barcelona is a big theatre and people in the back seats won’t notice a raised eyebrow. But, the TV director should have given fewer close-ups. Álvarez knows there are cameras and his restrained manners make him a more believable character. Then there is Guleghina’s voice: huge, often raw and not always steady. There is a hint of a wobble and she cannot quite cope with the strenuousness of the climbing sequence of her first aria. She transposes the fearful cabaletta. Her “La luce langue” is better, though the voice doesn’t have much colour to suggest the fears haunting her. She is at her best in “Una macchia” in the fourth act, truly impersonating madness with well chosen piano’s and pianisssimi’ but the final D in a fil di voce is replaced by a shouted C.
Roberto Scandiuzzi is an imposing Banquo with a rolling bass and a good presence on the scene. Tenor Marco Berti has the success of the evening with his “O figli, o figli miei”. Most of the time, he is not a very imaginative singer, though the possessor of a good Italian tenor with a clear strong tone. This time he surpasses himself, though one involuntary smiles as one realizes he copies, note for note, Luciano Pavarotti’s magnificent rendition in his 1968 LP début.
Striking in this performance is the quality of the comprimario singers. Javier Palacios as Malcolm is of course a first tenor in other performances, but all the other singers have fine healthy voices and are not some worn elder singers who want to prolong their careers. The chorus sounds a little thin in their big moments and the orchestra is not a top notch one. But Bruno Campanella succeeds in having a good rapport between scene and pit. No conductor can make the witches’ chorus in the first act sound like anything other than a bunch of country girls; but in the third act the witches sound truly menacing. Campanella grows in this performance together with his singers. In the second act he succeeds in having us forget the discrepancy between the parts composed for Florence and those for Paris almost twenty years later.
Probably the best buy among the commercial Macbeths available on DVD.