Opera Review – Macbeth – Scottish Opera

Here’s my review of Scottish Opera’s latest production, as posted at Opera Britannia. The exclamation marks are obviously not my own and have been added by an editor.
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Scottish Opera’s revival of Dominic Hill’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth is something of a mixed bag that is saved by several confident performances, most notably that of Elisabeth Meister as Lady Macbeth. Before we think about the singing though, we must discuss the curtain. By understanding the curtain, we can understand the whole of this production!

Scottish Opera is currently out of its usual Theatre Royal base in Glasgow whilst that theatre has major improvement work undertaken. This show took us across the river to the Citizens Theatre where simply due to the relative sizes of the buildings, any show is going to seem much smaller and more intimate. Now, the Theatre Royal has pretentions to the grand whilst the Citzens wears its faded grandeur with pride. And walking into the theatre we find that someone has unravelled a piece of string across the stage and hung a grime-laden piece of cloth inelegantly across the stage. The cloth itself looks as though it has been dragged around every venue in Scotland. It looks so grubby and untidy that one wonders whether someone has dragged it through Birnam Wood itself. The string sags in the middle and the curtain droops. It is a metaphor for what we will see unfold from a company that one fears has itself got a case of the droop.

For this production has indeed been all around Scotland and on the first night of this revival it was already feeling a little tired. It transpires that the production is a revival not of a main stage show but of a much pared down Macbeth, which was part of Scottish Opera’s commitment to tour opera to small and often unlikely venues in 2005 with a small band of seven singers and only a piano for accompaniment. In this revival the piano is gone, to be replaced by a small orchestra of just 18 players (a larger band is due in Edinburgh) making it difficult to decide whether we are seeing something that is essentially a big show cut to the bone or an already emasculated production being beefed up.

The curtain barely covers the set which itself only covers the lower half of the stage, the back walls clearly visible beyond. The set itself, such as it is, doesn’t do much to distinguish one place from another. It is a grungy, dirty interior – somewhere in a war zone. This is to be a production of Verdi’s version of the Scottish Play in Scotland by Scottish Opera that makes no reference to Scotland.

So…….on to the singing.

Before we get to the good stuff though we have to wander through a little more grime – for we begin with some most unsatisfactory witches. Now, I happen to be of the view that Verdi doesn’t help much with the music that he provides for the witches. It is just too jolly to convey anything dark and mysterious. Alas, the witches here seem to take their cue from that music rather than from what they are singing about. Though they look the part – turning up in grungy contemporary street-dress, they jig about and sing for all the world as though they are three little witches who, all unwary, come from a ladies seminary! What we see doesn’t match what we hear and neither fit with what we know should be going on. And there’s the rub, there’s not really a coherent narrative holding things together.

Oh, and the witches can’t be heard either, not one of them. Katie Bird, Martha Jones and Sioned Gwen Davies come over a little better when they are filling in other parts later in the proceedings, but essentially in both the scenes in which they appear as the witches we have to rely far too much on the surtitles, even though the opera is being given in English.

It is with considerable relief then that eventually something happens that brings focus to all that is going on. That something was Elisabeth Meister’s voice. Her Lady Macbeth is the mainstay of this production. Ravishing coloratura passages are delivered alongside an exploration of a palate of intensely passionate emotions. Ms Meister herself makes this show absolutely worth seeing.

However, the good news is that this isn’t just a one woman show. The male leads are also good. Whilst Ms Meister’s voice is gilt-edged, David Stephenson’s Macbeth has just the right amount of steely determination. They are well matched and the duet they sing after the murder of King Duncan is magnificently sinister. Stephenson also shines in Macbeth’s lament towards the end of the evening when he forsees his own death. It takes quite a lot to find a tender humanity within the character of a disturbed tyrant and there was something deeply moving about this aria – sung simply from a chair.

Thomas Faulkner and Anthony Flaum don’t let the side down either, as Banquo and Macduff respectively. They each sing well. Faulkner’s bass is rich and smooth and Banquo’s reappearance after his murder is a genuine coup, coming as a door falls flat onto the stage with a huge thump. Flaum’s determination to kill Macbeth is reflected in his singing which was full of energy.

Down in the pit, Derek Clark was doing what could be done with this half-pint orchestra. It was mostly successful, though there was nothing to cover the uncertainties of the upper string players at several points throughout the evening.

It was certainly good to have opera on the stage of the Citizens Theatre again, though it was a bit of a surprise to be treated to Boney M in the bar during the second interval! Daddy Cool never sounded more out of place.

Dominic Hill is now the Artistic Director of the very theatre that this performance was given in. It is intriguing to wonder whether, given his output since 2005, he remains pleased with this piece which feels very much as though it was put in cold storage at the end of its previous tour only to be brought out and plonked down in Glasgow without much thought now.

Were this a new show, one might naughtily wonder whether it was not in fact a rather cruel satire on the fate of Scottish Opera itself. The confused politics, absence of a king and rivalry for power have obvious resonances with what seems to be going on off-stage. The half-sized orchestra reminds us that the musicians themselves are on half-time contracts. And the absence of any chorus reminds us of, er, the absence of any chorus.

The voices themselves make it impossible simply to dismiss this production. However, as a whole, it doesn’t make much of a case for staging operas rather than doing them as concert performances. Elisabeth Meister’s Lady Macbeth is a stunning knockout. See it for her alone, enjoy the male leads and hope that somehow the witches can brew a potion in their cauldron that will put some real life and vigour into opera in Scotland.

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