This is by way of being a review of Opera North’s 2008/9 production revived this spring which we saw a week+ ago . Particularly looking at other reviews to see photographs it seemed unclear exactly what was being reviewed . Shakespeare’s play purports to be historically based , Verdi’s opera has a libretto based on a prose Italian translation , Opera North did an earlier production – which I saw – with Josephine Barstow as Lady Macbeth , this production is a ‘revival’ & thus has a totally new cast …….
Layer by layer then ; Shakespeare’s play was written for James I of England who claimed descent from Malcolm , so Macbeth is portrayed as an out & out villain with no redeeming features at all . Just as important as the dynastic propaganda is the religious . Macbeth did live and rule in pre-Christian times but there is no sense of a living pagan landscape as in stories/plays set in Classical times – there are the witches and nothing else . Morally the only value is loyalty , enforced by vengeance when betrayed . Modern witches & other neopagans have pointed out the caricatured view of witches in Macbeth – what I noticed afresh was how much of what people think they know of witchcraft comes straight out of it . James was much exercised on the subject and remember that it was written at the beginning of the 17c which was the worst ‘burning time’ ( in England ) .
In the play and the opera Lady Macbeth is a gift – speeches or arias she has the best writing and thus the best rounded character Kelly Cae Hogan is currently singing the role . She has a powerful and perfectly controlled soprano – she last sang Wagner for Opera North – which is exactly right for the character of Lady Macbeth although I will always remember Josephine Barstow’s performance . She is usually described as a singing actress , Kelly Hogan acts through her singing , Although all opera singers are required to do a lot more on stage than stand in the spotlight these days ! The other thing Lady Macbeth must have is believable chemistry with her husband – after all they are a childless ‘power couple’ who go on to be tied by complicity in regicide . You can see there was no problem . I saw a televised production of the Shakespeare play once with Eric Porter & Janet Suzman which was utterly spoilt by the lack of chemistry , each acted as if on a separate stage .
Verdi’s version dispenses with the porter at the gate of Macbeth’s castle whom my father always saw a key figure , adds in Scottish refugees in England , and interestingly the 3 weird sisters become a whole chorus . He insisted that the 3 movers of action in the opera were Macbeth , Lady Macbeth and the witches . This production dresses them as cleaners and has them involved in all the castle activities onstage even when not singing – this has the double effect of showing the dependence of the warrior class on servants and underlining the power & presence of the witches as Verdi intended . The Scottish refugees get a beautiful chorus to sing and are probably there because Verdi’s liberal nationalism required expression even in highly personal stories like this one . Not only is Macbeth a cursed regicide & murderer upon whom vengeance must be wreaked , he has to be a cruel tyrant whose people are to be delivered by an alliance with England (!) .
I guess you thought I’d never get round to the arty bit ! It is as you can see a sort of modern dress production . It was on a curved rather than raked stage – which avoids the sliding down worry – with rather drained colours and bleak lighting . This made all the red blood jump out at you somewhat but added to the grimness of the world depicted . Seeing Duncan , Macbeth & Malcolm all depicted as military dictators in a totalitarian state is one way to deal with the lack of background morality but it’s difficult to rejoice at Macbeth’s comeuppance . In this production the Macbeths’ bodies are about to be burned in public when the lights go out at the end which could happen in any news report nowadays .
As you can see Lady Macbeth was initially in an inappropriately unflattering blue suit , maybe it was just the wrong size because she looked fine in the nightgown or the black lace number in Act 2 where Duncan holds court in their castle . My friend who sings church music told me that the stiletto heels she and her lady-in-waiting wore were very bad for singing in – surely this should be a design priority ? The men were either in dark grey uniforms or dinner jackets , which last looked very odd when it is supposed to be the morning when Duncan’s body is discovered . Perhaps ‘dress’ style uniforms would have worked better .
All in all it was worth seeing ; for Kelly Hogan’s singing , for the contemporary staging and for Verdi’s music . It’s on at the Lowry , Salford Quays until the 8th , then Newcastle until the 13th & then Nottingham until the 20th .