Saturday 8 July 2017

Rethinking early Verdi: gripping 1847 Macbeth at Buxton

Buxton Festival - Verdi: Macbeth - Stephen Gadd and chorus (photo Robert Workman)
Buxton Festival - Verdi: Macbeth - Stephen Gadd and chorus (photo Robert Workman)
Verdi Macbeth (1847); Stephen Gadd, Kate Ladner, Oleg Tsibulko, Jung Soo Yun, dir: Elijah Moshinsky, Northern Chamber Orchestra, cond: Stephen Barlow: Buxton Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 7 2017
Star rating: 5.0

Verdi's original version of Macbeth in a rare staging which brings out the subtlety and complexity of the work

Though Verdi's Macbeth is familiar in the opera house, his original version of the opera is somewhat less so. The 2017 Buxton Festival opened on 7 July 2017 with Elijah Moshinsky's production of the original 1847 version of Macbeth, designed by Russell Craig with Stephen Gadd as Macbeth, Kate Ladner as Lady Macbeth, Oleg Tsibulko as Banco and Jung Soo Yun as Macduff. Stephen Barlow conducted the Northern Chamber Orchestra.

Buxton Festival - Verdi: Macbeth - Stephen Gadd & Kate Ladner (photo Robert Workman)
Stephen Gadd & Kate Ladner
(photo Robert Workman)
When Macbeth premiered in 1847 it was at the Teatro alla Pergola in Florence, a theatre not much larger than the Buxton Opera House. It was only for Paris in 1865 that Verdi revised and expanded the work for a larger theatre and larger forces. When I interviewed Elijah Moshinsky (see my article) he was keen for Verdi's early work to be taken on its own terms, rather than seeing it simply as a way-station to later Verdi operas ('the scribblings of a composer on his way to greatness').

The production made a virtue of budget and space constraints, it followed Verdi's stage directions but was not excessively grand; there was a single set but imaginative use of lighting (Mike Gunning), video (Stanley Orwin-Fraser) and movement (Caroline Pope). The juxtaposition of contrasting moods in Verdi's scenes was emphasised by swift transitions between scenes and there was a real concentration on individuals, characters and personenregie.

It helped having a fine singing actors in the lead roles. Kate Ladner was magnificently evil as Lady Macbeth whilst Stephen Gadd was profoundly jealous and not a little demented as Macbeth. The acting was not naturalistic, how could it be, and in moments like Macbeth's 'Is this a dagger I see before me' I was reminded of descriptions of David Garrick's acting (an important influence on Shakespeare-style in Verdi's day) and we really did see the whites of Gadd's eyes in a most disturbing manner.

Gadd's Macbeth was not loudly large-scale, it did not need to be, and he took advantage of the size of venue and orchestra to give us much intimate singing, but that did not mean a lack of intensity, far from it. Gadd really depicted Macbeth's gradual mental decline, starting from an intensely sexual relationship with Ladner's Lady (something which is not always obvious in productions) and developing into obsession. The banqueting scene at the end of Act One was rightly the climax of the first half, but there were many stunning small moments on the way. The second visit to the witches was initially done quite traditionally, but for the visions of the kings we were taken inside Macbeth's mind, with Stanley Orwin-Fraser's videos projected onto a scrim so that Gadd was seen surrounded by visions of his own making (after taking some sort of opiate given by the witches). This was a striking effect, but such was Gadd's profound performance that I wished we could have seen him more clearly. Macbeth's final aria, in this version given as the work's bleak conclusion, was a moving and rightly intense conclusion, a fine balancing with the Lady's sleepwalking scene.

Buxton Festival - Verdi: Macbeth - Oleg Tsibulko (photo Robert Workman)
Buxton Festival - Verdi: Macbeth - Oleg Tsibulko (photo Robert Workman)
Ladner's Lady was clearly dominant but this was very much a partnership, both she and Gadd drew a strong relationship with the synergy between the two being quite remarkable in the first act in moments like the dagger scene. Ladner drew a remarkable portrait of the Lady, her body language never wavering whether she was singing or no. This version of the opera has more coloratura elements in it (in the revised version Verdi introduced 'La luce langue' to replace an aria seen as too elaborate). Ladner made the coloratura telling, singing with a vibrant sense of character and drama. Perhaps some of the fioriture was not ideally clean and I sensed that the very top of her voice needed a little careful managing, but in the context of the Lady this hardly mattered and it was a very fearless performance. What Verdi wanted was not bel canto but character, and Ladner gave us this in spades. A chilling account of the role which rightly climaxed with the sleepwalking scene, all hushed intensity.

The young Moldovan bass Oleg Tsibulko made a stylish Banco, his distinctive timbre reminding me of a young Sergei Leiferkus. Tsibulko sang the role with an elegant sense of line, real nobility and suitable intensity. This was one of those performances that made you regret that Banco died so early. This was Tsibulko's UK debut, and he is certainly a singer that I look forward to hearing again.

Buxton Festival - Verdi: Macbeth - Kate Ladner  (photo Robert Workman)
Buxton Festival - Verdi: Macbeth - Kate Ladner  (photo Robert Workman)
Jung Soo Yun was a dignified and mature Macduff, fitting into the ensemble in Act One, and standing out for his moving solo in Act Two. It was an imaginative idea to have Luke Sinclair's Malcolm sung from a box and he gave a strong performance, but there were slight ensemble issues. The smaller roles were strongly cast mainly from the chorus, with Helen Bailey as the Lady in waiting, Richard Moore as the doctor, Ben Thapa as Duncano, and Stuart Orme as Sicario. Treble Charlie Lambert was hard working, singing Fleance and one of the apparitions as well as appearing as Malcolm's page, whilst the other apparitions were finely incarnated by Molly O'Neill and Phil Wilcox.

The chorus (including the festival young artists) were hard working, and there was rarely a moment when they were not 'on' even scene changes and set shifting were in character. In the big moments they filled the theatre with sound, and the women were particularly impressive as the witches combining vivid chorus work with Caroline Pope's imaginative movement. For the opening witches scene the level of lighting was so low that the surtitles were brighter and balance issue that could do with tweaking.

Buxton Festival - Verdi: Macbeth - Jung Soo Yun & company (photo Robert Workman)
Buxton Festival - Verdi: Macbeth - Jung Soo Yun & company (photo Robert Workman)
I do not usually associate conductor Stephen Barlow with radical revisionism in performances but this was the second time within a week he has made me think differently about a work (he conducted Wagner's Die Walkure at Grange Park Opera, see my review) and his performance with the Northern Chamber Orchestra made me listen to the Macbeth anew. In this space there was no need for a large scale bombastic performance, and this was richer and subtler than usual. The G&S style oom-pah was still there but it lacked the comedic potential that it often has, so that the witches choruses had a vividness. Elsewhere there lovely subtle colourations without the need to be robustly loud. You do not always associate early Verdi with subtlety, but we did here.

Recommended recording - Verdi's 1847 version of Macbeth with Rita Hunter, Peter Glossop, BBC Concert Orchestra, John Matheson on Opera Rara, available from Amazon.

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