Lady Macbeth’s vocal power behind the throne

In the programme note for the Royal Opera’ s latest revival of Verdi’s Macbeth, there is a brief reference to the early performances of the piece in Florence in 1847, after the second of which, Verdi was “accompanied home by a crowd of people who yelled like the damned”.  If she didn’t quite get that response, Liudmyla Monastyrska came quite close after a tremendous performance of the opera’s anti-heroine.

Phyllida Lloyd’s production is not new, and hasn’t significantly improved since last viewing.  Efficient enough, the abstract context that it sets for the piece is backed up by some reasonably engaging spaces in which the actors work, but it doesn’t add anything to the overall work.  One pantomime sequence, in which the Macbeths gather on their bed and are granted a flurry of children by the witch’s chorus, only for them to be snatched away again, is the exception: an interesting exploration of some of the themes of René Weis’s essay in the programme (‘Enter the Lady’), dealing with the character of Lady Macbeth.  Otherwise, though, the production becomes wearyingly repetitive in its abstractions: the swirling gold cage that reappears periodically for the court set pieces, and the large geometric dark brown panelling that encloses the Macbeths’ quarters and looks like nothing so much as a ginormous wall of Bournville.  A chocolate-box production for the wrong reasons, perhaps?

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Lady Macbeth

Monastyrska sleepwalks (c) Clive Barda for Royal Opera House

The attraction was most definitely Monastyrska: a truly remarkable combination of massive, rafter-rattling force with entrancing pianissimo and coloratura.  Admittedly, there’s a sense in which these sometimes sound like two different voices, but her judicious skill in deploying them, and their sheer effect – thrilling in the alternation of intense control and unbridled power – made this a very memorable Lady Macbeth indeed.  The opening, when she moved from reading the letter to her first sung phrase, made my heart miss a beat, so dramatic was the contrast between spoken voice and full, gleaming, singing tone.

Both voice and stage demeanour were more suited to Lady M than to Aïda, seen earlier in the season in a substitution for Micaela Carosi.  She seems more natural when ‘acting off of’ others than she does in moments of solo introspection.  That said, her sleepwalking scene had a real intensity and the closing pianissimo phrase was just breathtaking.  A real pleasure, and long may she be engaged at Covent Garden as she continues to hone her art.

In any other opera, Simon Keenlyside’s title role might have looked dangerously underpowered by comparison; and yet, this suited the balance of this particular work.  Always a dedicated, fascinating performer, his interpretation was convincing as the conflicted ‘good man who commits an evil deed’ (to quote Weis’s essay).  He brought his attractive and varied tone to bear on the character’s torment, albeit a little hardening when at full stretch in the more declamatory passages.  He definitely gave the impression that, despite being Thane of Glamis and Cawdor, were it not for his Lady, he would not have been a contender for King of Scotland.

I’ve written approvingly of Raymond Aceto before (Sparafucile, as well as a great impression as Don Basilio), and he was once again on good form as Banquo.  A lovely dark timbre to his bass-baritone conveyed Banquo’s nobility and sense of foreboding in good measure.  Smaller roles were all well-delivered.

Pappano whipped up the forces a treat, and the orchestra sounded on its best form in a while – a rich tumultuous mass of details that powered the story onward.  The chorus gave lusty accounts of their various and diverse roles (as listed on the castsheet): “witches, messengers, noble ladies and gentlemen, servants, assassins, scottish exiles, soliders, children”.  Patria opressa! was movingly effective, although I’m not sure having them gather around the beds of the sleeping Macbeth and his Lady really added very much.

A great night – one of the most enjoyable in a while at Covent Garden – and I’m looking forward to my second visit next week!

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