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 characterMACBETH; OPERA NORTH, MACBETH; Bela Perencz, LADY MACBETH; Kelly Cae Hogan, BANQUO; Paul Whelan, MACDUFF; Jung Soo Yun, 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 .MACBETH; OPERA NORTH, MACBETH; Bela Perencz, LADY MACBETH; Kelly Cae Hogan, BANQUO; Paul Whelan, MACDUFF; Jung Soo Yun, MACBETH; OPERA NORTH, MACBETH; Bela Perencz, LADY MACBETH; Kelly Cae Hogan, BANQUO; Paul Whelan, MACDUFF; Jung Soo Yun,MACBETH; OPERA NORTH, MACBETH; Bela Perencz, LADY MACBETH; Kelly Cae Hogan, BANQUO; Paul Whelan, MACDUFF; Jung Soo Yun, 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 .MACBETH; OPERA NORTH, MACBETH; Bela Perencz, LADY MACBETH; Kelly Cae Hogan, BANQUO; Paul Whelan, MACDUFF; Jung Soo Yun,  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 .


About rukshanaafia

Ceramic & textile artist
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2 Responses to Macbeth

  1. kathy bergen says:

    Wow…you gave such a complete and honest review of this play/opera…such as I have never read before. I have never seen the play or opera of Macbeth…have not even read it (shame on me!), and now am moved to do so. Thank you for posting this.

  2. rukshanaafia says:

    Thanks Kathy ! I should have credited Donald and my friend Anne with both of whom I had lengthy discussions .

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