10 Jul 2013

Macbeth, Blackheath Halls

Since its inception in 2006, the annual community opera at Blackheath Halls has become a favourite fixture in the local summer calendar.

Children from nearby primary schools, avid amateur singers and actors from the local community and the instrumentalists of the Blackheath Halls Orchestra are joined by a cast of stellar professionals and young soloists from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance; the standards reached are remarkably high and the experience, for performers and audience, alike richly rewarding.

Previous years have seen the community ensemble adopt the guise of Spanish bandits (Carmen, 2007), Parisian freethinkers (La Bohème, 2008), pastoral nymphs (Orpheus and Eurydice, 2009) and Russian serfs (Eugene Onegin, 2011). This year it was all witchery and warfare, as director Christopher Rolls unveiled a fast-paced, thrilling production of Verdi’s Macbeth, transferring Shakespeare’s tragic drama of self-destructive deceit and ambition to the Machiavellian manoeuvrings of a modern-day battlefield and banquet room.

This was an effective shift - and presumably shrewd financially too, cutting down considerably on the chorus’s costume costs. Similarly, electing for a ‘Gothic minimalist’ approach to the staging allowed the well-known story - played in the round - to unfold directly and without distraction. A deep darkness embraced the Hall, creating an apt sense of intimacy; the crimson velvet of the stage curtain, illuminated now and then by beams of blood-red light (Lighting Designer, Mark Howland), intimated the violent evil at the heart of the drama.

In the centre of the black-carpeted floor stood a circular raised dais (Designer Oliver Townsend), which would later become the platform for a series of murders and deaths, the visual repetitions suggesting an unbreakable pattern of betrayal and violence.

Throughout, the community chorus was in fine voice: confident, alert and well-coordinated, they had clearly been well-drilled by the director, his assistant Natalie Katsou and Musical Director, Nicholas Jenkins. If the white-draped witches initially lacked a little menace and bite, the war-worn combatants were convincingly wrecked and weary from their military exertions, and the banqueting aristocrats, celebrating their new leader’s prowess and good fortune sang with a gleam which matched their glossy black ball-gowns.

Quentin Hayes was a tense, introverted Macbeth; compact of physique, he prowled the floor first with proud majesty, then suspicious apprehension. Dark of tone, his baritone swelled impressively at moments of intense anger and despair. Miriam Murphy was his ruthless Queen, and she brought all her experience of the role to bear (she has previously sung Lady Macbeth at Opera Holland Park and the Royal Opera House), presenting a focused, controlled study of callous calculation and mental disintegration. Powerful but never strident, Murphy negotiated the wide-ranging compass with ease, displaying an even focus across the registers. At the top she was potent and incisive, conveying the persuasive confidence of Lady Macbeth; in the lower depths she revealed an appealing smoky timbre which hinted at inner emotions kept in check by a rigid self-will.

Matthew Rose was a superb Banquo, serious and sincere. Convincingly destroyed by disillusionment as Macbeth’s malicious scheme unfolded, Rose’s final aria was troubling and moving. Susanna Buckle (Lady-in-Waiting) and Simon Dyer (Doctor) provided a sensitive commentary during the somnambulant Queen’s disintegration, while Thomas Drew was a vibrant, positive Malcolm. All three have been or are students at Trinity Laban, where Rose will himself become a visiting teacher later this year.

Making up the strong cast were Charne Rochford, a clear, ringing Macduff, and Tony Brewer as King Duncan. Assaulted off-stage, this King surprised his alarmed subjects, appearing blood-soaked upon on the stage before staggering the length of the Hall to collapse in death throes upon the dais at the end of Act 1. Unfortunately, this necessitated a ‘resurrection’, and his subsequent slow walk from the auditorium was one of the few moments when the mood of sombre intensity slipped.

Nicholas Jenkins led his players through a rousing reading of the score and gave constant encouragement and clear direction to the entire cast. If the intonation wasn’t always spot on, then the summer heat and crowded venue were probably partly to blame. The small string forces were sometimes overwhelmed, but played with precision; and there were some lovely solos from clarinet, bassoon and piccolo.

This community project was launched by General Manager, Keith Murray, and is driven by the passion and invention of Rose Ballantyne. In this ‘age of austerity’, such ventures are undoubtedly a long way down funding bodies’ list of priorities, and it takes considerable energy and commitment to get a project like this off the ground, let alone to attain such tremendous standards of professionalism year upon year. For the members of the adult and children’s choruses, the experience will have been immensely edifying and invigorating, and perhaps for some, life-changing. No doubt, they are already looking forward to next year.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Macbeth: Quentin Hayes; Lady Macbeth: Miriam Murphy; Banquo: Matthew Rose; Macduff: Charne Rochford; Malcolm: Thomas Drew; Lad-in-Waiting: Susanna Buckle; Doctor: Simon Dyer; Servant: Andrew Crozier; Assassin: David Calpan; Herald: George Lusty; King Duncan: Tony Brewer; Director: Christophe Rolls; Designer: Oliver Townsend; Musical Director: Nicholas Jenkins; Halls Chorus and Orchestra. Blackheath Halls Opera, London, Tuesday, 9th July 2013.