06 Sep 2011

Macbeth from Paris and Parma

Superstitions surround theatrical productions of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy.

Besides the odd backstage injury or death, an air of box office doom also permeates any staging of Macbeth. Two recent DVDs of opera house performances of Giuseppe Verdi and Francesco Maira Piave’s adaptation give credence to the superstitions, no matter how many tickets may have been sold. What the cameras recorded is fairly dire.

Superficially, both Lilaina Cavalli’s staging for the Teatro Regio di Parma in 2006 and the 2009 Paris Opera work of Dmitri Tcherniakov could be classified as “Regie” productions. In other words, the directors make themselves felt at every almost moment, with their choice of setting and costume, as well as the occasional ostentatious creative touch. For the latter, consider Tcherniakov’s use, between scenes, of stage projections of a Google Earth point of view on a small European town, or Cavalli’s use of a little person in Lady Macbeth’s first scene, said little person sporting, for no discernible reason, a long, thick rat tail.

However, Cavalli just uses some of the clich├ęs of Regie directors to spice up her basically traditional point of view. Viewers can ignore the chorus members in theater-seat rows watching the action at certain points, and the pointless updating of air raid sirens and gun fire just before the overture. When the singers appear, they essentially move and behave as singers of these roles have for decades. Sylvie Valayre’s Lady Macbeth, for example, wears a conventional nightgown and carries a candle holder in her sleep walking scene. Veteran Leo Nucci goes from military regalia to kingly robes, all while wearing a fairly unvaried pained expression.

It’s the worst of both worlds — the distractions of an inept Regie production and the pro-forma stiffness of a dull traditional one. Cavalli is blessed, therefore, to have Leo Nucci as her lead. Nucci is not a great signing actor, but he can be effective, and this is one of his great roles. By the end of the evening — a long sing — gruffness begins to dominate his tone, but for much of the performance, he is in top shape, earning the audience’s passionate adulation. From the slight wobble and tendency to smother the tone, Sylvia Valayre appears to be a soprano with a huge voice just barely within her control. She plays a conventional Lady, stroking her husband’s bare chest when flirtatious, and widening her eyes to convey homicidal passion. The rest of the cast is capable but generic. Roberto Iuliano does sing a rather sweet “ah, la paterna mano.” Bruno Bartoletti, even more veteran than his leading man, gets a proficient reading from the Parma orchestra.

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Both Cavalli in Parma and Tcherniakov in Paris opt to spare their singers of Banco a zombie-like reappearance after the character’s murder, instead having their Macbeth alarm the party guests by raving about a man invisible both to them and the audience. After that, there is no comparison between the two productions. Paris wants the “real Regie.” Tcherniakov is quoted in the booklet essay as admitting Macbeth gave him “a world of trouble.” So apparently it was his intent to share that with us. He apparently decided that the world of Macbeth is centered on community, so the main stage is the square of a remarkably neat row of houses apparently constructed by Ikea. For the castle, a frame moves forward with an elegant, high-ceilinged living room in earth tones. In the witch and forest scenes, the chorus — mixed in gender — ambles and roams around the town square. For Banco’s murder, for example, that fine singer Ferrucio Furlanetto basically just gets lost in a crowd of passing strangers in overcoats, and when they part, he is dead on the ground. This distaste for the eerie or supernatural elements of the libretto has its flip side in the best part of Tcherniakov’s direction, the complexity of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s relationship. Here we have a couple who are outwardly normal. Circumstances bring out an unexpected blood lust, but they turn to each other with a gentleness not often seen in other productions. The director’s most amazing work is with Violetta Urmana as Lady Macbeth. In other appearances Urmana has used both the amplitude of her voice and her physical self to sink back into prima donna poses. Here, both her vocal work and her acting have a sharp relief that grips the attention, even when Urmana is not at the front of the attention. Almost as strong is Dimitris Tiliakos in the title role. His is not an imposing voice, but he works with it to produce incisive effects. His thinner frame gives him a haunted look, as well as a sense of weakness that draws in the audience’s sympathy. That’s especially potent in the final scene, which Tiliakos plays in a shirt and briefs. Besides the typically imposing Furlanetto, Paris has a credible Macduff in Stefano Secco. A young conductor with appropriate name of Teodor Currentzis exhibits both expected flash and some keen insight into a score that does have its unsubtle moments.

Despite the originality of Tcherniakov’s vision, ultimately this Macbeth simply works too hard to be different than any other Macbeth. There’s always something interesting to observe, but the total impact is much less than the director might have hoped. A 30 minute bonus feature centered on the director will fascinate some, as it delves deep into his working method. Others will find their worst suppositions about the ego of Regie artists extensively confirmed.

If anyone is desperate for a Macbeth on DVD and these two are all that is easily available, consider the Parma one for the star power of Nucci, and the Paris one for Urmana’s amazing work, if not also for some interesting stage pictures and a sense that there is a place for opera in the world of 2011.

Chris Mullins