Macbeth’s turbulent emotions and fierce storms make it ironically ideally suited to an English summer evening, as the clouds gather menacingly overhead (although I managed to stay dry at Iford). Director Bruno Ravella presides over a sophisticated traditional reading which proves faithful to both Shakespeare’s eerie original, and also to Verdi’s passionate protests for Italian nationalism which spill out like power surges through Macbeth‘s arias and choruses. Ravella adds some intelligent director’s touches, especially where Lady Macbeth is concerned: her frustrated motherhood is painfully obvious as she clasps Fleance in an early scene, only for a furious Banquo to snatch his child from her arms in clear alarm; Macbeth, meanwhile, can barely bring himself to touch the boy. Later, blowing out a candle before walking out to her suicide, the dead candle left behind on stage signifies both Lady Macbeth in death and Shakespeare’s famous “Out, out, brief candle”.
The action of Verdi’s opera moves with even more brutal ferocity than Shakespeare’s play, Verdi paring down an already lean drama to produce a turbulent cascade of foregone conclusions, irretrievable actions and inevitable tragedy: so, no touching murder scene for Lady Macduff or her children – just an aria of dreadful grief from Macduff, delivered here to the very dismembered limbs which are all that remains of his family, reverently wrapped in a bloodstained St Andrew’s flag by the chorus.
Designer Alyson Cummins makes the most of Iford’s stone interior, which lends itself naturally to an ancient Scottish castle, particularly when the cloister floats in mist or is lit with candles, and peasants are dressed in shawls and snoods. Hurricane lanterns, sometimes muted by shaded glass cabinets, add brighter illumination where needed. Sung in English, and performed almost in the round, this dynamic and intimate production draws us into the private, plotting, desperate world of the play.
Eddie Wade makes a strong, charismatic Macbeth, who begins as a sensible, rational soldier and caring husband, but falls deeper and deeper into self-loathing, anxiety and finally despairing madness. Verdi gives Macbeth some of his most gloriously rational harmonies, and it is a privilege to hear them so perfectly handled by Wade, whose vocal judgement and acting get it right time after time. Wade establishes a vivid interior life for Macbeth with masterly quickness in his first few bars. Meanwhile, an impassioned Macduff from Christopher Turner sees his heartrending aria on the death of his family become a standout highlight of the evening, encouraging warm applause from a delighted audience. A richly-voiced Banquo from Barnaby Rea comes across with power and nobility: this Banquo really competes with Macbeth in terms of social and martial prowess, while his relationship with Fleance feels touchingly real.
Laura Parfitt, recovering from illness, gave a brilliantly acted account of Lady Macbeth, her face and gestures hugely expressive. Although her vocal control was still suffering, with a vibrato too wide for comfort at times, Parfitt is capable of producing a huge and extraordinary sound. Lady Macbeth’s easy instinct for evil, and growing horror at her own ruthlessness, came across beautifully. We were also treated to confident and skilful performances from Charlie Maggs and Hugo Caesar, boy actors who alternate Fleance and the Bloodied Child apparition, and also to a competent, engaging Malcolm from Oliver Brignall. The weak link for me were the witches (Aoife O’Connell, Claire Filer and Sarah Richmond), whose twisting, jerking dancing was good, clasping their hands in sacreligious prayer, but whose vocal timing was too often sketchy in unison moments. The witches’ words consequently didn’t get across with much sharpness or bite: a pity, when their evil spells and dastardly incantations are such fun to hear.
Verdi’s Assassins’ Chorus, on the other hand, was brilliantly executed: his malicious, pulsing rhythms of evil coming across with vengeful clarity. Other choral moments were inspiringly expressive. The CHROMA Ensemble’s playing seems to get better and better every time I hear them: tonight, conducted by Oliver Gooch, Verdi’s score came across in coruscating detail, with swelling moments of passion and bitter spikes of pain. Perfectly fitted to the cloister, the tone and texture of their playing constantly did justice to this excellent production – and above all, to Verdi’s genius.
See the review in full at Bachtrack