Cardiff audiences don’t boo the designers and directors of WNO operas – they just drop the level of applause when they appear at curtain call and then up the volume again when everyone takes a bow. Thus it was with this Macbeth at Wales Millennium Centre.
The show had plenty of panto elements (jolly and also bonkers costumes, flashing lights, spooky moments, villains and vamps). However, rather than hiss at the villains (and I don’t mean the baddies on the stage) as this is terribly serious opera the polite audience members applaude gently when the “creative” team appeared, concentrating on showing their appreciation of the ensemble’s musical artistry.
Fortunately, there was quality and artistry where it really mattered – the singing and playing. We had a soprano to die for and other really splendid principals, the chorus (especially ladies) in glorious voice despite being lumbered with costumes that had to be experienced (or endured) to be believed, while the orchestra gave us a spine-tingling playing of Verdi’s score.
Mary Elizabeth Williams
But the first half was one of the silliest ever staged by WNO (and that is saying something) and while the second half was much better (did they swap production team at half time?) the damage had been done. For most of the country the silly season ended with the start of September, for WNO it seems to have only just begun.
It was Cardiff audience’s bad luck that the Scottish play was brought in from Northern Ireland Opera to be the start of this autumn season of three Shakespeare based operas marking the 400th anniversary of the writer’s death. The production from NIO’s Oliver Mears (just named boss of the Royal Opera) should really have been left on the other side of the Irish Sea as it has few redeeming features except seeing how far you can stretch a budget making vast numbers of increasingly ridiculous costumes.
And why? To make the obvious but crass comparison between Lady Macbeth and modern-day wives of despots (think Imelda Marcos and Elena Ceausescu). This was really the only idea behind the show – plonking the play in a modern setting to show a totalitarian regime where power is based on violence, intimidation, exile (suitcase-carrying refugees here), association, secret service personal body guards and unofficial thuggery, corruption and fear. Yeah, gottit.
The entrance of Duncan was plain daft with bagpipe kilties pretending to be playing the score and if I was the Scottish government I would request the Saltire and Lion Rampant flags are taken down!
The witches (here three groups of women) look freaky rather than frightening, whether as shaved headed frumps or hunch-backs, but they are choreographed well by Anna Morrissey in the evening’s only effective dramatic scenes, as they inhabit what looks like an abandoned mental hospital which (despite long scene change pauses) is the set for the entire evening. After the squaddies rape one woman (fortunately off stage) she joins the witches – now we understand!
In the same sterile set, Lady Macbeth adopts silly poses in her glad rags in front of a mirror, the chorus put on black berets and sunglasses for Duncan’s mourning, the in-house photographer snaps away and then Macbeth’s thugs wear multi-coloured bobble hats when go off to murder.
Things do improve in the second half as the producer settles down and seems to take the work more seriously. However, after such knock about nonsense I found the use of actual video of people suffering from wars shown on a screen while the Scottish refugees sang the Act IV chorus Patria Oppressa distasteful.
Yet all praise must be heaped on soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams who dominated the evening from her first appearance, thrilled with each aria whether blood curdling vaulting ambition, iron fist and sexual manipulation of weak Macbeth to the final mad scene. It was not her fault she was directed to vamp it up in fur coats (and she actually flashed big knickers at one stage) and the sassy American singer rose above the clunky direction.
It was not just her stature that contributed to the domination of the opera and overshadowing the title role leading man Luis Cansino. The Italian baritone is a fine Verdi singer but his acting was flat compared with Williams’ soaring stage presence. More convincing in their acting but similarly Miklós Sebestyén as Banquo and Bruce Sledge as Macduff were most impressive vocally and I hardly noticed the latter until he caressed us with his one beautiful aria.
Ultimately this was another celebration of the WNO Chorus, the Orchestra and singers who can rise above what directors throw at them.
Andriy Yurkevych conducted with enough heat to fire up the witches’ cauldron.
Wales Millennium Centre until 24 September then touring.