Opera review: Scottish Opera: Macbeth, Glasgow

The idea of a “close up” version of Verdi’s first Shakespearean opera Macbeth has obvious fascination. There’s so much in this score that speaks on a far more intimate level than the traditional Verdi blockbusters – snatches of subliminal, suggestive musical imagery that add to our understanding of a character or his/her action.

David Stephensons Macbeth was well sung but failed to project his tortured mental state

Scottish Opera: Macbeth - Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

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Then there’s theatrical scale, where the modest dimensions of the Citizens stage, and the closeness we feel to it, take us literally into the faces and minds of this menagerie of tragic, complex characters.

That was the stated intention of stage director Dominic Hill, whose dark, brooding production whittles the intended cast of principals and chorus down to single operatives, and a similarly docked orchestra that reduces the full bank of strings to a sextet.

There’s a lot to be said for the way Hill’s characters play this “small screen” version set in a modern-day oppressed Eastern European state, where Macbeth’s castle is a despot’s spartan bunker, Lady Macbeth is an uncontrollable party animal living on fags and booze (when did this opera ever get the laughs she does when soaking everyone in sight during her drunken outburst at the banquet?) and where the punked-up trio of witches look and act like a militarised version of Pussy Riot.

One key problem remains: the constant references to Scotland, which stretch the bounds of belief in Hill’s locational translation – unless, of course, he sees Macduff (or Malcolm?) as Alex Salmond.

Besides that, though, we are constantly reminded that this is not the Real McCoy. The Witches – a chorus in Verdi’s concept – open unconvincingly with a dance too comic and unsynchronised to be taken seriously; Macduff musters a meagre army of three or four, so “Birnam Wood” is more copse than forest; the final chorus of refugees is bereft of human scale and impact.

Where this production should score is in the quality and conviction of the solo roles. Thomas Faulkner’s Banquo is certainly steely and persuasive, but David Stephenson’s Macbeth, nobly sung, doesn’t quite get to the heart of his mental turmoil, and Elisabeth Meister’s manic Lady Macbeth, soaring in the high coloratura, is vocally uneven in the lower register.

The orchestra, under Derek Clark, is mostly alert, but inevitably lacking the luxurious foundation of full strings. It’s a production that always feels as if something is missing. Mostly people.

Seen on 22.03.14