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10 Mar 2019

Monarchs corrupted and tormented: ETO’s Idomeneo and Macbeth at the Hackney Empire

Promises made to placate a foe in the face of imminent crisis are not always the most well-considered and have a way of coming back to bite one - as our current Prime Minister is finding to her cost.

Mozart’s Idomeneo and Verdi’s Macbeth: ETO at the Hackney Empire

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: The cast and Chorus of Idomeneo

Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith

 

Returning from the Trojan Wars, his ships and crew threatened by a tempest, the Cretan King Idomeneo bargains with the sea-god Neptune in order to save his own skin, and in so doing risks losing his son, by his own hand. Having vowed to sacrifice the first person he meets upon his safe arrival on his home shore, Idomeneo is greeted by his son, Idamante, and finds himself conflicted by the demands of love and duty. Mozart’s opera seria dramatizes the King’s attempt to unravel the mess of his own making, as rivalries, jealousies and intrigues fester and flourish at his Cretan court. As so often with the Greeks’ tragic tussles, the modern-day parallels are painfully apparent.

However, in contrast to Austrian director Martin Kušej’s approach at Covent Garden in 2014 , director James Conway has eschewed the idea of turning the opera into, in his words, a ‘specific history lesson’, and the untrammelled simplicity of his conception and its execution in this ETO production of Idomeneo begets rich results. This is a production characterised by musical insight, dramatic composure and technical excellence, on the part of the creative team and cast equally. In a programme article, Conway confesses that he has previously hesitated to direct Idomeneo, fearing its ‘relentless earnestness’, but here he makes such sincerity a virtue: this Idomeneo is notable for its clarity, candour and communicativeness.

Katie Mitchell’s modern-day for production for English National Opera (2010) had assorted pen-pushers, waiters and flunkies dashing about the stage in what I described at the time as an ‘unexplained and unfathomable flurry of activity’. Conway’s approach could scarcely be more different. Here, music and mise en scène work their magic, aided by Frankie Bradshaw’s clear-cut designs and Rory Beaton’s bold lighting - how apt for an opera whose hero is the epitome of Enlightenment values.

Idamante Chorus Ilia.jpgCatherine Carby (Idamante), ETO Chorus, Galina Averina (Ilia). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Beaton’s lighting schemes pit strong primary and complementary hues against each other. Colours transmute - aquamarine and orange, purple and red - sometimes with a swiftness matching the briskness with which many of Mozart’s arias follow the recitative, elsewhere more organically. The palette and brightness, by turns intensified and muted, evoke locale - the infinite ocean, a waterfront, the stormy sky - and mirror inner passions.

The stage is quite foreshortened by an imposing edifice which stretches its length, but a mosaic-bordered exit stage-right suggests a depth beyond - what Conway describes as ‘a doorway leading to something suggesting culture’ - and sliding panels concertina to open up vistas, revealing the Cretan populace, who suffer as a result of their ruler’s failings, and the captured Trojans who are confined in a prison evoked by a slanting panel which tilts menacingly. The ETO Chorus, though distanced for much of the production - placed ‘beyond’ the struggles within the court, but no less affected by them - were in strong voice.

CTurner Idomeneo.jpgChristopher Turner (Idomeneo). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

The cast, too, offered consistently fine Mozartian singing. As Idamante, mezzo-soprano Catherine Carby made us feel each and every of the young Prince’s emotional twists and turns. This Idamante wore his heart on his tunic-ed sleeve and Carby acted and sang with candour, the richness of her voice particularly expressive in the recitatives. On the last few occasions that I’ve heard Christopher Turner perform (at SJSS in La Nuova Musica’s Alcina early this year, and as Pollione in Chelsea Opera Group’s Norma in 2018) I’ve been more and more impressed by the combination of focus, power and beauty that his tenor commands. He displayed plenty of ringing heroism as Idomeneo, compelling our attention: the bravura of his Act 2 aria, ‘Fuor del mar’, conveyed both the King’s regal stature and his self-inflicted anguish and fear. Turner has a strong lower range which brought out the darkness within this morally questionable monarch; but there was lyrical shapeliness too in Act 3’s beautifully shaped ‘Accogli, o re del mar’.

Ilia and set.jpgGalina Averina (Ilia). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

As Ilia - the daughter of the defeated King Priam of Troy who, rescued at sea by Idamante, has fallen in love with the son of her enemy - Galina Averina had the difficult task of establishing the mood at the start of both halves of the performance, but she did so with consummate poise. Alone on stage, she opened Act 1 as a figure of loneliness and loss, curled against the wall as if trying to protect herself or escape from the conflicts within the palace and within her own heart. Averina has a lovely soft gleam to her sound, which was complemented by the woodwind quartet in Act 2’s ‘Se il padre perdei’; and, while ‘Zeffiretti lusinghieri’ was similarly moving, Averina was able to bring urgency to her tone when required.

Elektra.jpgPaula Sides (Elettra). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Paula Sides seemed a little hesitant initially as Elettra - the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra who has taken refuge among the Cretans after her brother Orestes has committed matricide, and who is Ilia’s rival for Idamante’s love - but her Act 2 aria ‘Idol mio’ was rich with emotions which exploded further in her final aria, ‘D’Oreste, d’Ajace ho in seno i tormenti’. In the latter, the torments of Elettra’s own unrequited passion and of her brother’s crime fused in a glittering fiery outburst. Sides captured Elettra’s vengeful vindictiveness and her pathos; as she yearned to follow Orestes to the abyss, the shapes carved by her soprano were as sharply defined as the edge of the knife she wielded.

The roles of Arbace, the King’s counsellor, and the High Priest were amalgamated and sung with vigour and urgency by John-Colyn Geantey, though perhaps a bit less dashing about would have brought more gravity to the High Priest’s persona. As the Voice of Neptune, Ed Hawkins was fittingly resonant and imposing. The ETO Orchestra played with brio for conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny who created fluency between the recitatives and arias, which are often conjoined in the score.

Turner and priest.jpgChristopher Turner (Idomeneo) and John-Colyn Geantey (Arbace). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Heading towards disaster, Idomeneo can only hope for divine intervention and mercy. He and subjects are fortunate: it proves easier for the Cretan King to do a deal with the deities than it evidently is for some modern-day leaders to negotiate with their counterparts abroad and their ‘allies’ at home. And so, Idomeneo’s reckless promise is revoked and order restored. Idamante slays the sea monster and buries past conflicts, and while Idomeneo has to relinquish power to the next generation, the continuity of the family line is ensured, as a new world begins. If only we could be so lucky.

The regicidal Macbeth, too, might wish for similar good fortune, for in Shakespeare’s Scottish play supernatural interventions bring not reconciliation and renewal but deceit and destruction. Not that the witches in James Dacre’s production are particularly menacing, although the female Chorus sang with vigour and precision. At the start, cloaked in green habits and white aprons, this gaggle of nuns-cum-nurses tend to the wounded and lay out the dead, all the while singing of the vicious torments which they have inflicted upon the unfortunates who have crossed them. These are not Shakespeare’s ‘withered and so wild’ hags with ‘choppy fingers’, ‘skinny lips’ and ‘beards’ who emerge from mist and dissolve into darkness; nor the ‘compound’ figures in Verdi’s opera who - as shaped by the composer’s interest in the writings of Shakespeare’s German translator August Schlegel - are both emblems of the superstitious lower classes and Delphic agents of fate. Instead, this ministering brood, medicinal rather than murderous, might have looked more at home in a G&S operetta - or, when Verdi’s rum-te-tum choruses are given a cheery boost by conductor Gerry Cornelius, on the set of The Sound of Music. Thus, when Macbeth and Banquo, fresh from their trouncing of the merciless Macdonald and with the traitorous Thane of Cawdor’s limp body swinging from a noose at the rear of Frankie Bradshaw’s twilight-zone set - meet the witches for the first time, their query, ‘What are these foul beasts?’, falls rather flat.

Macbeth witches.jpg Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

The representation of the witches seems to me to be central to the impact that the opera makes, especially because of the identification with the witches that Lady Macbeth’s music intimates. Christoph Clausen (in Macbeth Multiplied: Negotiating Historical and Medial Difference Between Shakespeare and Verdi) has argued that although a comic treatment of witches was the norm in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century theatre, by the mid-nineteenth century witches were depicted on stage as more sinister figures. But, even if Clausen is correct, we have Verdi’s directives to his librettist Francesco Maria Piave, in letters written during September 1846, that he should ‘adopt a sublime diction, except in the witches’ choruses, which must be vulgar, yet bizarre and original [triviali, ma stravaganti ed originali]’. What did Verdi mean by ‘trivial’? Verdi scholar Julian Budden has claimed that the first witches’ chorus merely captures the ‘childish malice’ of the witches in Shakespeare’s play, while the second ‘has all the deliberate vulgarity of its predecessor without any of the fantasy. It is just any chorus of gipsies or peasants.’ Whatever, representing the witches as sisters of Christ doesn’t seem to me to make much sense: the witches inflict pain rather than assuage it.

The opera is presented in English and this, too, seemed to me to be misguided. Of course, exigencies of dramatic form and pace necessitated excisions which alter relationships and motivations in the opera: thus, Verdi’s Lady Macbeth becomes unequivocally a dominating demon rather than just an instigator, encourager and accomplice, and she is the mastermind of the plot to murder Banquo, rather than a caring wife pushed aside by her increasingly isolated and sick husband. Also, Verdi was himself more influenced by the various Italian translations of Shakespeare than directly by the Bard’s text itself, although, in the face of criticisms of his libretto, Verdi wrote to Léon Escudier, his French publisher (April 1865), complaining that although he was accused of not ‘knowing his Shakespeare’, ‘in this they are very wrong. It may be said that I have not rendered Macbeth well, but that I don’t know, don’t understand, and don’t feel Shakespeare-no, by God, no. He is a favourite poet of mine, whom I have had in my hands from earliest youth, and whom I read and reread constantly.’

ETO Macbeth set.jpgPhoto credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

The point here, though, is that Andrew Porter’s translation is a prosaic paraphrase of Shakespeare’s poetry which reduces the emotive impact of the words. For example, Macbeth sees ‘gouts of blood’ upon the blade and dudgeon of the hallucinated dagger: why change this to ‘drops of blood’? End-of-scene summaries are also offered; but surely there can be few in the audience who are unfamiliar with the basic plot. An Italian text would have retained the lyricism and rendered an emotional heightening of the tragedy.

What Dacre’s production does do successfully is to bring the political rather than the personal to the fore: after all, premiered in Florence in 1847, at the height of unrest about Italian reunification, Macbeth surely articulates Verdi’s devotion to Italian independence and his abhorrence of the tyrannical abuse of power. Bradshaw’s set is a concrete bunker, which harbours secret niches and nooks, permitting intrigue and, in the Grand scena and duet in Act 1, intimacy. Infernal intrusion, too, when the ghost of Banquo - bloodstained but not quite shaking ‘gory locks’ at the hysterical Macbeth - imposes himself behind the throne positioned and raised in the central recess. CCTV cameras capture the corruption, and attest to Macbeth’s paranoia; until, that is, a black-clad assassin disables them prior to Banquo’s murder.

Dacre updates the drama to the modern age: Macbeth and Banquo swap their officers’ regalia for sharp suits, while Lady Macbeth sports attire suggesting executive power. As rag-bag mercenaries in combat fatigues, beanies and balaclavas dash about the stage, the effect is pacy and punchy - though I winced when Ruger MK I’s were waved menacing at the mention of swords and daggers.

M and LM.jpgMadeleine Pierard (Lady Macbeth) and Grant Doyle (Macbeth). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

The singing, too, provides much enjoyment. As Lady Macbeth, Madeleine Pierard may not comply with Verdi’s request for ugly, declamatory sounds and hollow whispers, but she does make a good effort to use vocal colour to portray complexity of character and the dangerous energies of Lady Macbeth’s inner life. There’s a false note in the sleep-walking scene, though, when Lady Macbeth puts out her own light, for the taper that she carries - she has light by her continually; ‘tis her command’, so her Gentlewoman tells us - is her only defence against the darkness which she has summoned and delighted in and which now consumes and terrorises her.

Macduff is reduced to a minor role by Piave and Verdi, but Amar Muchhala makes his aria count, singing expressively and with dramatic impact. Andrew Slater is vocally woolly-edged as Banquo but he establishes a nice rapport with Dara Gibo’s Fleance, the latter’s suitably guileless and vulnerable demeanour evoking a pathos which is rare in this production.

Banquo and Fleance.jpgAndrew Slater (Banquo) and Dara Gibo (Fleance). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

ETO regular Grant Doyle rages and rampages as Macbeth but achieves volume at the expense of subtlety of characterisation and nuance of vocal line. This is a broad-stroke interpretation, and while Doyle has an appealing baritone it feels pushed to the limit at times here; there is little sense of the interior life - the conscience and guilt which make Macbeth a ‘man’ rather than just a murderous tyrant. Even his final aria, ‘Mal per me che m’affidai’, though sung with intensity and focus, did not quite capture the sense that this is a turning-point, a moment when Macbeth truly regrets his actions recognising that they have brought him a ‘power’ which is transient and false, and that he has denied himself the honour, love, obedience and friendship which should accompany old age.

Cornelius keeps the action surging forward and, attentive of the details of orchestration, conjures the dark tinta of the score.

English Touring Opera’s 2019 Spring Tour continues until June 1st.

Claire Seymour

Mozart: Idomeneo

Ilia - Galina Averina, Idamante - Catherine Carby, Idomeneo - Christopher Turner, Arbace - John-Colyn Gyeantey, Elettra - Paula Sides, The Voice of Neptune - Ed Hawkins; Director - James Conway, Conductor - Jonathan Peter Kenny, Designer - Frankie Bradshaw, Lighting Designer - Rory Beaton, ETO Chorus and Orchestra.

Hackney Empire, London; Friday 8th March 2019.

Verdi: Macbeth

Macbeth - Grant Doyle, Lady Macbeth - Madeleine Pierard, Banquo - Andrew Slater, Macduff - Amar Muchhala, Malcolm - David Lynn, Lady-in-Waiting - Tanya Hurst, Doctor - Ed Hawkins; Director - James Dacre, Conductor - Gerry Cornelius, Designer - Frankie Bradshaw, Lighting Designer - Rory Beaton, ETO Chorus and Orchestra.

Hackney Empire, London; Saturday 9th March 2019.

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