Our president, Frances Dharmalingham, has written a critique of a recent visit to the opera: Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’.
At Christmas 2018, my family’s gift to me was the promise of a visit to the opera. Finally, in October 2019, that promise was fulfilled, and we all spent a wonderful evening at His Majesty’s Theatre, completely enthralled by the W.A. Opera’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth. What a magnificent experience!
Being uneducated about music, I cannot comment on the technicalities of the orchestra’s performance or the singing. But I can say that from the first note of the overture I (and I am sure the entire audience) was wrapped and suspended in the most wonderful sound, as it anticipated and established the atmosphere of each scene, supporting and intensifying the prevailing or developing moods; and as the singing and acting revealed both character and emotion.
Along with the sound was the visual impact. Sets were effectively created through easily-moved columns and minimal furnishings, while the brilliant lighting scheme was crucial to the overall combined visual and emotional experience. As the scenery and costumes used mainly blacks, greys and white, with sudden bursts of scarlet, so too the lighting made clever use of contrasting dark shadows and bright, white light, with the implied menace of red in appropriate scenes.
There were so many memorable moments: among them the dagger scene, Banquo’s murder, Macbeth’s return visit to the witches, the sleepwalking scene, the appearance of the English army, and the final duel.
The discovery of Duncan’s dead body had rather a different emphasis from the scene in the play. Shakespeare’s play describes the horror of the unseen bodies of the king and guards, and then focuses on Malcolm’s and Donalbain’s need to escape; the opera featured a great outcry of alarmed dismay and anger, with the entire chorus on stage and a harsh white light full on the revealed body of Duncan. This was followed by a very moving hymn, the whole episode extraordinarily powerful.
In contrast to this, we were not shown the cruel slaughter of Lady Macduff and her children, but learnt of it through Macduff’s movingly beautiful lament.
Another major point of difference was the portrayal of the witches, with all the women of the chorus singing for them in three groups, instead of three single performers. Similarly, the three murderers were presented by the whole male chorus.
Banquo’s murder was undertaken in suitably dark surroundings, as in a forest, and his ghost’s appearances at the feast were cleverly engineered. The supernatural elements were most effectively handled when Macbeth returned to the witches, with the future kings one after another clearly not Macbeth’s descendants. For this scene a section of the stage floor was removed and the lurid light from below suggested that the witches’ cauldron was being heated by the fires of hell.
An interesting scene showed a crowd of poor and injured refugees, and established the effects of the war. It gave us a visual summary of the details given in the play, in the discussion between Macduff and Malcolm. It was followed by the really dramatic sudden arrival of the English army to support Malcolm’s campaign. It is notoriously difficult to show an “army” on stage, but this was a strikingly symbolic image, with an arrowhead formation of armour-clad soldiers bearing banners of the cross of St. George: a spectacularly effective moment.
As we are frequently reminded, Shakespeare’s play is noted for its poetic language and the power and variety of its imagery. This was necessarily the one element which was sacrificed in transforming Macbeth from drama to opera. I do not speak Italian and cannot therefore comment on the libretto as sung, but I took occasional glances at the sur-titles – only occasional, because the story is so familiar and the performance was so engrossing that I didn’t want or need to look away from the stage more than I could help. What phrases I did see carried fleeting echoes of well-known lines, but mostly they were prosaic rather than poetic, reminding one of the process of translation from 17th century English to 19th century Italian and back to 21st century English. This is only a comment, not a criticism.
To watch this performance was to be given a new perspective on the play, seeing the story unfold, the characters develop, interact and respond to events, and to feel the full emotional impact of Macbeth’s downfall. It will serve as an enriching backdrop to my next re-reading of the play itself.