The English Touring Opera, ‘the leading touring opera company in the UK’, are currently performing three productions, including Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth. Verdi’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s play premiered in Florence, 1847; a revised version was then first performed in Paris in 1865. Having never read Macbeth (I know, I know) or even heard of Verdi (classical music is not my forte) I decided I’d be perfect to review the performance. Jokes aside, I was curious to finally learn the story of Macbeth, and after reviewing Cendrillon last year and loving everything about it, I was excited to go to the opera once more.
The overall setting and costume were quite pared back: the stage was taken up by a set that mimicked a grey castle wall, which at some points opened to reveal trees of the Birnam Wood. Only a handful of props featured throughout. Costumes were not terribly elaborate: Lady Macbeth wore either a plain purple dress, or a pale blue nightie and robe. The distinct lack of intricate embellishments and mostly dark colours heightened the feeling of doom and the effect of the dark events that unfolded onstage. Such design choices also permitted a greater focus on the music, the singing and the characters themselves.
I was particularly bewitched by the female characters and was most struck by Madeleine Pierard’s Lady Macbeth. Whilst Macbeth was directly responsible for the deaths of various characters, it appeared to be Lady Macbeth who engineered the murders. And whilst Macbeth was quick to experience the psychic backlash of his sins, Lady Macbeth did so much later and only in her sleep – Pierard moved slowly, hauntingly around the stage whilst unknowingly revealing the crimes she and Macbeth had committed. But for the most part Lady Macbeth was able to cast aside any feelings of regret, and even tormented her husband for such emotion. Both Pierard’s movement and voice portrayed Lady Macbeth as having an insatiable desire for power and success, which was incredibly brooding.
Lady Macbeth’s drinking song was particularly wicked despite its jolly tone. Its rhythms and lines were juxtaposed with the frightful visions of Banquo walking around the stage, bloodied and silent, existing only in the eyes of Macbeth and the audience. During Banquo’s brutal assassination, his son Fleance escaped into the night – his father’s dying words urged him to do so. The young character was played by a local boy, as is the case at each stop on the ETO’s tour. This was a nice touch and I’m sure all would agree that Norwich’s Fleance did the company proud.
As noted, I knew very little about Macbeth, save for there being a dagger, a murder and a trio of witches. Yet Verdi’s opera featured a whole chorus of witches, and the ETO saw them dressed in green gowns with white aprons, complete with veil to give them a nun-like appearance. Verdi’s chorus haunted the stage, and their ability to see the events which were to unfold made for an eerie atmosphere whenever they appeared. Together the witches first revealed the fate of Macbeth and Banquo, planting the seed from which the ensuing drama grew. However, it is evident that the witches do not orchestrate the events; they merely offer an insight into what will (apparently) occur. It was at once clear that Lady Macbeth better encapsulated how we come to think of witches, for she played an indirectly-direct role in the dark fate of her husband and consequently of many others.
Macbeth’s downfall was evident throughout, in which there was a shift from regret to indifference. The complex psychology of many of the characters means I’m now very keen to read Shakespeare’s play. I’d also like to do so to trace the differences between Shakespeare and Verdi’s versions. Verdi’s music evoked so much tension and fear, and so I’m interested to see if Shakespeare’s text manages to do so alone. Despite being spooked, the performance left me feeling reassured about one thing: Macbeth is testimony to why I would never have my fortune read.