Macbeth (BBC-2 and Radio 3); Le Nozze di Figaro (Covent Garden)
New Statesman, Dec. 1977
Let's tiptoe reverently behind the scenes of TV opera. Each studio production will reach as many people in one evening as Covent Garden in a lifetime. For many of the viewing millions, this will be their first taste of opera; and their last unless they find it wholesome and appetising. So why put Macbeth on the mass menu? Because it's the essence of popular TV, perhaps, all knock-out competition and elimination, complete with sudden-death play-off? Not so; buzzer and gong. Radio Times confides the real reasons, which are so much more relevant and creative. Take for instance the fortunate fact that Macbeth happens to fit in with some of the fantasies of its producer, Brian Large (no details are given, but he may find that his seniors are reluctant houseguests). Furthermore, he feels that television is particularly well suited to handle witchcraft and evil. No doubt many viewers had already suspected it was that kind of medium. But this is not just the average evil normally provided for everyday family viewing; it's several cuts above that.
The point has been deliberately enlarged, and driven home hard with the hammer of studio techniques. These, though quite different from the techniques of Hammer studios, avowedly serve the same purpose; they deeply double-dye the blackness of the evil, which then meets the eye with a striking bang. They include such refinements as painted glass screens, with holes right through, and a rigidly mineral colour-scheme of silver, pewter and iron. The visual quality is neatly caught in the words of the designer, David Myerscough-Jones: ”I think we see the Macbeths as being, in a sense, the creation of the witches, and we have the witches conjuring this metallic castle out of a thorn-ridded ice landscape.” The murky atmosphere has also been acutely analysed, and found to contain such elements as evil, greed, death and murder, with more than a trace of vaulting ambition. As the last scholarly allusion shows, there is no passing the buck here. The whole problem of good and evil, fair and foul, has been squarely confronted from the TV viewpoint; and the declared aim of creating an immense void by means of sweeping gestures has been comprehensively achieved.
Yet one timely inspiration justified the entire enterprise: finis coronat opera. While all this creativity was going on, sound radio offered a simultaneous stereo transmission of Verdi'sMacbeth. For best results, viewers are advised to turn off TV sound. But there was some case for retaining the vision; close-ups can provide the viewer with some very powerful spectacles. Patricia Johnson made her features work very effectively for her interpretation of Lady Macbeth, whose most culpable moment, I thought, was her complicity in murder of her own sleep-walking scene The voice-over treatment had a predictably fatal outcome. Norman Bailey, magnificently sombre of voice and demeanour, vas plainly well aware of the expressive possibilities of the medium. But I never felt he had wholly mastered them. His devilish Macbeth looked to be the very image of his saintly John the Baptist in the recent Covent Garden Salome. Of course it is just coincidence that in each role his head is removed and replaced by a wax replica. All the same, I feel he would be wise to beware of such casting, and devote his expressive features to more mobile characters. As Banquo, Nicolai Ghiaurov gave a perfect theatre performance, while Neil Shicoff as Macduff and Robin Leggate as Malcolm excelled in the required style.
Best of all was the sumptuous playing of the LPO under Robin Stapleton. It's not their fault if the close camera-work occasionally caught the singers desperately swivelling in search of a down-beat, or visibly counting one, two, three. Even studio productions have their drawbacks; so the BBC's announced policy of continuing relays direct from opera-houses is all the more welcome and reassuring. At first sight the current revival of Figaro looks distinctly televisual. The conventional but convincing scenery and costumes would make a pretty picture. Karl Böhm presides over the excellent orchestra like a Jungian archetype of wisdom and benevolence; Hermann Prey's ebullient and dulcet Figaro is well matched by, a strong cast. The Mozartian blend of earnestness and sparkle has already reached and refreshed even more millions than any TV opera; and licence-holders would be interested to learn how many times it could be relayed for the price of one studio production.
Admittedly Figaro avoids overt violence, give or take a slap or two. But its sexual and social jigsaw may well fit the fantasies of many consumers, not just the producer's. It's not only Upstairs, Downstairs but also, for a whole act, in my lady's chamber. There is no evil to speak of, unless we count Almaviva's penchant for the nymphet Barbarina; but the cameras could at least point to some authentic witchcraft (close-up of blood-stained ribbon) in Cherubino's love-charm for the Countess. Indeed, all the great Mozart operas embody enchantment; their typical interplay of disguise and confusion may even suggest that all human love is a case of mistaken identity, and that nothing matters except the movement and pattern of the dance. On any analysis, however, they offer no obvious message to be spelt out in the big red underlined italic capitals of studio production. The alternative of direct relay, we are told, would certainly not make good television. But good opera may be the sound criterion; the TV Macbeth manifestly owed more to musical art than studio technique. Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible to feeling as to sight?