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by on 12 June 2022

Opera on the Cutting Edge


by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave after William Shakespeare 

The Grange Festival, The Grange, Northington until 5th July

Review by Mark Aspen

The Grange is a dramatic location, with its air of distressed grandeur yet majestic pride.  It is hard to think of a better venue to stage the most dramatic of Verdi’s operas.  Macbeth is a melodrama, but a melodrama with shocking power and crucially with great psychological depth.  As The Grange Festival’s first back-to-normal production, freed of the strictures of the pandemic regulations, it certainly packs some punch.

Verdi was a rising star, 34 years old, when he penned Macbeth.  It would be another forty years before he was to write another opera based on a work of William Shakespeare.  Maybe this is surprising, since Shakespeare was always a literary hero of Verdi’s.  It is said that Verdi kept a copy of Carlo Rusconi’s Italian translation of Shakespeare’s works constantly at his bedside.  However the then quite youthful Verdi wanted to make an impression with Macbeth with inventive approaches to the music and the drama, in fact to the whole feel of the work.  He wrote to Francesco Piave, his librettist, “If we can’t do something great, let us at least try to do something out of the ordinary”.  Verdi did create something both great and extraordinary, and The Grange Festival’s production undoubtedly fulfils Verdi’s wishes.

Following on the vigorously striking prelude, the scene opens on the witches’ coven.  The setting is a circular library with floor to ceiling bookshelves; think the old British Museum reading room.  A spiral staircase gives access to the gallery.  All is cobwebby and dusty.  It is an atmospheric and eerie ambience, but the implication is clear: the witches have the source of all knowledge. 

This setting forms the background for all that transpires.  Designer Madeline Boyd’s versatile set is used, in conjunction with Matt Haskins imaginative lighting, with inspired effect to create not only the locations but the mood of the scenes.  For instance, the banquet scene has the quatrefoils on the gallery balustrades picked out in golden light, together with a hidden cabinet of regal torcs.   When Macbeth broods and frets, he sits on a pile of ledgers on the forestage strongly cross-lit.  The subtle use of the revolve gives impressions of passing time.

The witches are all clad in black, of course, but it may be leather, it may be tulle.   They range from Goths to grandmas, post-punks to poster girls, bitches to ballerinas.   You would not want to meet any of them on a dark night.  They are at least eighteen in number, and are ubiquitous.  They inhabit the imagination and touch the real world.   They engage directly with Macbeth and Banquo, but are unseen by everybody else, but they are always there controlling, impelling and re-writing destinies.   The books of knowledge are literally ripped up in their hands and reconfigured, while the past litters their feet.  This is a concept that is cleverly developed throughout.

Verdi insisted that in his opera there are three main characters, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the Chorus of Witches.  The Grange Festival’s witches comprise singers and dancers, who are skilfully and meaningfully choreographed by the director, Maxine Braham.  They are a powerful presence.

Verdi’s Macbeth has no real heroes, no real heroines, no real romantic roles, it is left to concentrate on the corrosion of the characters of the Macbeths as their dreadful deeds mount up.  It builds on Shakespeare’s treatment of their psychological disintegration with relentless intensity and Braham’s production enhances this perspective.  We see and feel their terrors and triumphs, their ruthlessness and regrets, their greed and their guilt.

Macbeth is so much of an antihero that Verdi does not give him a big introductory aria, merely a reaction, in duet with Banquo, to the witches prophesies.  Not that he seems a weak man, here is a bold warrior come straight from the battlefield.  However, he is easily seduced by the witches’ words, and once their prophecy that the Thane of Glamis will become Thane of Cawdor is immediately fulfilled, dare he hold out hope that he will be King of Scotland.  Yet, “Alla corona che m’offre il fato la man rapace non alzerò” (I will not reach out a rapacious hand to the crown I am offered); a man of honour or a man of indecision?  But by the end of Act Two, all has changed, “Sangue a me quell’ombra chiede e l’avrà ” (That shadow demands blood from me, and I will have it).   In the role of Macbeth, Gezim Myshketa is well able to convince in this blackening of heart to become a ruthless tyrant.  The strong acting skills of the Albanian baritone are matched by a fine warmth of voice tempered by an increasing harshness as Macbeth degenerates.  A number of his arias drew applause, particularly Pietà rispetto amore, when, before his last military stand, Macbeth contemplates his own obituary, that “curses will be your elegy”.

Incidentally, Braham adds a nice touch to that last stand.  When Macbeth rallies the remnants of his army, “… all’armi! La morte o la vittoria!”  (… to arms! Death or Victory!), they rather don’t fancy death and, on the word morte they slink away into the shadows and abandon him.  These are the men who were willing to kill Macduff’s wife and children in cold blood.  The men’s chorus, enhanced by eerie woodwind, really exude menace.

Macbeth was probably Verdi’s favourite amongst his early operas, and the role of Lady Macbeth his favourite role.  Certainly he had much to say to various producers about the casting of the role.  He wanted it sung in a “raw, choked, and hollow” voice, a requirement that most singers have chosen to ignore.  To advantage it must be said, as Verdi gives some wonderfully bold, forceful and acrobatic music to the role. 

Lady Macbeth is very much the power behind the throne.  She is resolute where Macbeth is hesitant; she is bold where he is cautious; she is ruthless where he is squeamish.  Verdi introduces her reading a letter from her husband, and her first aria is a cappella, but soon the full power of the part is unleased when she learns that King Duncan will stay at their castle that night.  She sees that the witches third prophesy could come to pass as quickly as the second, and is hell-bent on seizing the moment, “Or tutti sorgete, ministri infernali,

Che al sangue incorate spingete i mortali! ”  (Arise, all the agents of hell that rouse mortals to bloody acts!). 

Acclaimed soprano Judith Howarth excels as Lady Macbeth, bringing a wide experience to what is surprisingly her first casting in the role.  It is a very demanding role for which Verdi demands the full range of technical skills.  Howarth’s coloratura soprano decorates where the drama requires and touches it more lightly in other passages.  Si colmi il calice, her brindisi, (Fill the goblet) with its dramatic interruption, is a far cry from the equally well-known sleepwalking passage, with its Una macchia è qui tuttora! (Shakespeare’s “out damn spot!”).  Dramatically Lady Macbeth is also demanding for her multifaceted character is more nuanced than Macbeth.  That subtlety is there in Howarth’s acting.

One of Lady Macbeth’s lines rings poignantly topical, “Pien di misfattiè; il calle della potenza” (Full of crimes is the road to power).  One is reminded of events in the Ukraine, even more so in Act Four, where Scottish refugees, fleeing Macbeth depredations, gather on the English border.  The chorus comes into its own again with singing of their beleaguered homeland, their Patria oppressa.  Disconcerting music in complex harmonic progressions brings together the male and female choruses, uniting in a subjugated yet patriotic anthem.  Dancers and child actors form part of this highly affecting tableau.

The other three principals are the lords, Banquo, Macduff and Malcolm. The murder of Banquo so early in the action, towards the beginning of Act Two is quite disappointing in that we lose the pleasure of hearing the rich resonant bass voice of Samoan-New Zealander Jonathan Lemalu.  He gets few arias but “come s’empie costui d’orgoglio, nella speranza di un regio soglio! ”(how the hope of a kingdom fills him with pride!) shows not only Lemalu’s  fine singing, but Banquo’s prescience at things to come.  His foreboding continues in his soliloquy, “Qual orrenda note, per l’aer cieco lamentose voci” (What a night of horror, with mournful voices in the blind air), sung with great depth of meaning.

Equally, it’s a shame that Verdi introduces the tenors so far down the action.  The only tenor solo aria occurs after the refugees’ lament, which continues with Macduff’s heart-rending elegy, “Ah, la paterna mano, non vi fu scudo, o cari” (Alas, a father’s hand was not there to shield you, my dear ones).  This is a pitifully aching anguished cry in the earnest tones of Samuel Sakker in the role of Macduff, mourning the slaughter of his wife and children.  His duet with Uruguayan tenor Andrés Presno, who plays Malcolm, makes a powerful conclusion to the opera, with Malcom’s words “La gioia eternerò per noi di tal vittoria ” (I shall make the joy of such a victory everlasting for us all).

Verdi intended the music of Macbeth to be innovative, and it is indeed quite radical for the time.  The music is often dark and sinister and follows characters moods, linking their personalities.  Interestingly, there are similarities for the witches and Lady Macbeth, possibly in the sense that Lady Macbeth is the agency that fulfils the witches prophesies.  The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is on top form and conductor Francesco Cilluffo takes the score along with great panache and energy.  Be it strident brass or sinister woodwind the music makes its mark with gusto.

Much symbolism grows from Shakespeare to Verdi to Braham’s production.  Some of the associated imagery is strikingly forthright, King Duncan’s maimed body, Macduff’s mother post-Caesarean 11th Century, Banquo’s head in bag.   Most symbolism is subtle, Banquo’s ghost moves across the gallery holding a concave mirror onto which powerful spotlight beams.  Children carry eggs, which Macbeth smashes, putatively the descendants of Banquo or Malcolm. 

The child actors, who play apparitions and other parts, are a disciplined ensemble with convincingly acted moves.  Fleance is played with confidence by Kai Patel as a boy of nobility and fortitude.

Macbeth is very much an opera for choruses and chorus master Tom Primrose has created intertwining ensembles of refugees, of assassins, and of course witches who fit into the production with studied precision and impressive vocal impact.  They are presences not all human.  They are sometimes spiritual, supernatural or are merely abstract notions; hence their ubiquity.  They certainly engender the atmosphere of the opera.

The Grange Festival’s Macbeth is a remarkable production musically and dramatically, that drips with symbolism, pertinent symbolism.  Moreover, it succeeds in making its protagonists real people.  They are not caricatures, which is so easy with melodrama.  Lord and Lady Macbeth are not monsters, but humans with strengths and weaknesses, who eventually tear themselves apart in realisation of how far the ruthlessness of their ambition has taken them.   

Mark Aspen, June 2022

Photography by Simon Annand

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