Magnificent Macbeth

21 October 2019

Review: West Australian Opera, Macbeth ⋅
His Majesty’s Theatre, 19 October ⋅
Review by Sandra Bowdler ⋅

West Australian Opera’s new production of Verdi’s Macbeth must be one of the best offerings in Australian opera in recent years, a complete success in almost every aspect. The work in itself is an excellent distillation of the Shakespeare play, with great clarity of story-telling, musical characterisation and atmosphere aplenty just waiting to be brought to life by creative operatic forces.

With respect to the staging, Roger Kirk’s simple but clever set comprised a combination of large moveable uprights and lighting effects with bursts of dry ice  brilliantly reflecting the creepy environs of the witches and gloomy Scottish castles, the latter enhanced as appropriate by sumptuous costuming depicting the courtly scenes of Duncan’s visit to Glamis castle and the crowning of the Macbeths.  The witches – in the opera Verdi multiplies the original three into three sections of a women’s choir – are suitably weird in black gowns with large-toothed necklaces, the male nobles are represented as barbaric warriors, all kilts and furs and crossed swords, while Lady Macbeth appears initially in her underwear (bodice and long underskirt), but wears a truly magnificent red and gold gown in her stately scenes. The courtiers define the period with sixteenth century starched ruffs and Elizabethan hairdos.  It is clear that director Stuart Maunder and the designer Roger Kirk were sharing a coherent vision. The coming of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane was wonderfully effected by shafts of green light cutting through the darkling stage, and the battle at the end was one of the best staged fight scenes I have seen, where you could easily track who was doing what to whom in a convincing fashion.

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra play magnificently under Brad Cohen, with every nuance and dynamic subtlety of the score brought forth without ever overriding the singers.  The WA Opera Chorus is exemplary, moving confidently around the stage whether representing witches, warriors or courtiers and singing with precision and conviction.

James Clayton in the baritone title role cements his reputation as an operatic star. His voice is resonant and accurate and he projects charisma and authority as a leader, no less convincing in his deterioration and desperation as he follows the course he has set himself. Both opera and play are usually considered to be a morality tale on the dangers of blind ambition, not to mention warnings against heeding false prophets (there is a view this was originally aimed at James I and VI who was unduly preoccupied with witches), but there is also the influence of the ultimate power wife.

The motivation of Verdi’s Lady Macbeth is somewhat more obscure than that of Shakespeare’s. In the play we find out early on that Lady Macbeth bore a child who has somehow disappeared from the Macbeths’ lives, presumably dying young. Verdi omits this information and we are left with a far less sympathetic character who seems bent on evil almost for its own sake.  The character has been portrayed by many a famous soprano, and often tends toward caricature. Antoinette Halloran teeters on that edge, but overall manages a convincing portrait of a woman determined for her husband to rise in society no matter what it takes. Her vocalism suffers somewhat however, with her undeniably powerful high notes tending to sound somewhere between shrill and squally at the top. Overall however her dramatic rendition provides a suitable reading of the character.

Antoinette Halloran and James Clayton as Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Photo James Rogers.

The rest of the cast is nowhere less than excellent. Jud Arthur is a commanding Banquo and a terrifying ghost, and tenor Paul O’Neill a ringing Macduff, ably partnered by Matthew Lester as Malcolm.  The small roles of Lady Macbeth’s Lady in Waiting and the Doctor are more than adequately performed by Ashlyn Tymms and Kristin Bowtell, respectively.

Verdi is not exactly an obscure composer for the lyric stage, but Macbeth is certainly more of a rarity than the well-trod path of Trov and Trav. It is great to see this collaboration between WAO and State Opera South Australia bestow such excellent production values on something rather off the beaten (Australian) path.

Macbeth continues at His Majesty’s Theatre until October 26 with a season in South Australia in 2020.

Picture top: James Clayton as Macbeth, shadowed by witches. Photo James Rogers.

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Author —
Sandra Bowdler

Sandra Bowdler is an archaeologist who has been writing about music for some twenty years, most recently for Opera magazine (UK), Bachtrack and Handel News. She is also the author of “Handel’s Operas in Australia, a performance history” Händel Jarhbuch (2017). Her favourite piece of playground equipment would be the picnic bench with smoked salmon sandwiches and champagne.

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