Saturday, 15 July 2017

Review of Buxton Festival's Macbeth

This was a real achievement by Buxton Festival 2017. They chose the 1847, original, version of Verdi’s first operatic adaptation of a Shakespeare play (and he didn’t try any others until in his old age), which gave the performance something of a collectable cachet and made it part of a trilogy of ‘early Verdi’, with Giovanna d’Arco last year and Alzira coming next.

It also – fully justifiably – put the opera into the medium-size theatre ambience it would originally have had. Buxton has to beware of trying to do pieces that are too ‘grand’ for its stage, and it normally keeps its chorus to a total of 16. On this occasion that number was doubled by the inclusion of ‘Young Artists’, which was enormously worthwhile – but the work is so taut and economical in construction and style that it seems ideal for the intimacy of Matcham’s opera house.

In Elijah Moshinsky the festival had one of the world’s great Verdi directors, and in festival artistic director Stephen Barlow an equally gifted Verdi conductor. Moshinsky may not have had the kind of spending budget he would get at the Met in New York, but he made use of every device he could to make this the super-charged Romantic drama Verdi saw in it. There may only have been one three-sided-box of a set and few moveable props, mainly schoolroom benches (not much room for anything else when you have a big chorus on stage!), but it was designed with a yawning perspective to imply a world of mystery (Russell Craig the designer) and video projection and sound effects were there to eke out its imperfections – weather noises for the blasted heath, clanking and rumbling for the assembling army, and so on. The spooky goings-on of Macbetto’s last prophetic encounter with the witches, and the final battle, were both visually evoked by Stanley Orwin-Fraser with considerable elaboration, though some of his imagery seemed to stray from the descriptions in the text (which follows Shakespeare’s remarkably closely).

But the musical drama and the characterization of the central couple were both very powerful, and Barlow and his principals, Stephen Gadd and Kate Ladner, deserve much praise for those. Because of the nature of the story, the other roles are relatively subservient – Duncano (Ben Thapa) and Banco (Oleg Tsibulko) each get done in by half way through, and Macduff (Jung Soo Yun) and Malcolm (Luke Sinclair) only come into their own towards the end, but each role was well acted and strongly sung (as were the lesser ones and the children’s appearances).

But Gadd and Ladner were superb, not just individually but in the portrayal of their relationship. They seem to catch an almost sexual charge as they plot their horrible deeds together (Ora di morte e di vendetta), in a way you imagine notorious murderer couples of more recent history may perhaps have done. 
He has an incisive timbre and the ability to make even the hell-hound evoke some sympathy from us – she brought richly-layered psychology to the role Verdi called ‘Lady’: evil beyond words in the duet when she and her husband realize returning were as tedious as go o’er – and in the sleep-walking scene able to create the kind of out-of-body vocalization the composer wanted, while keeping well on top of his purely musical demands.

It’s a demanding work in every sense, and this was one of the best non-comedy operas the Buxton Festival has mounted for some time.
Stephen Gadd as Macbeth

Kate Ladner as Lady Macbeth

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