Macbeth (Covent Garden)

New Statesman, Oct. 1976



 What should be the staple produce of Covent Garden; what actually is its main marketable commodity? It must be very precious, at around £10 a time. It's manifestly addictive, too. The lost souls of the ticketless prowl round outside, pitiably thrusting out their pound notes with hands even shakier than the currency. Like drugs, like sex, it must be some essence that appeals to our veins or reins before our brains. Perhaps the longed-for elixir owes its power to its concentration. It is a double distillation of real life, first into drama and spectacle and thence into music; and we can savour each part separately as well as the totality together. Opera, like voyeurism, unites three or more pleasures.

    So the opera-composer, like the song­writer, needs external stimulus. The musical mind must first respond to something before it can correspond to anything, or with anyone. If Verdi's first truly great operatic work was his Requiemthat would be, because libretto (believe it or not) is so profoundly dramatic. He needed at least the creative fire of a Victor Hugo (ErnaniRigoletto) or a Shakespeare (FalstaffOthello) to kindle a comparable blaze of music. It is not really the fault of the production, or the principals if the current revival ofMacbeth just falls short of final flair. As the admirably thorough programme explains, Shakespeare is sublime. But no one would speak of this opera in quite the same tone or, with few exceptions, in the same breath. First written in 1846-7 and revised nearly 20 years later, it had to wait almost another century for its first Covent Garden production, in 1960. One reason is that not only Piave’s text but also Verdi's music suggest Tales from Shakespeare translated into Italian. The sister arts are here at best step-sisters; they stand in much the same relation as “secret, black and midnight hags” does to “misteriose donne”. It is the musical component that lacks overtones and resonances.   

    Of course there is compensatory power and vitality, especially in the grasp of timing and climax, scene and incident. The score is well illustrated by the scenery and costumes of Georges Wakhevitch and the staging of Ande Anderson. The early-Romantic pictorial style of scenery, balance, and grouping well matches and even enhances the music, with its contemporary emphasis on colour and line. The most primary of colours is tranfused on to the stage from the text. One running theme in Macbeth is blood; “sangue” keeps spouting from the vocal line; Lady Macbeth is followed everywhere, even in her sleep, by a trail of scarlet.

    Again,  the adjacent  thrones, almost labelled his and hers, were not unsubtle; in her soliloquy, Lady Macbeth instinctively assumed the kingly seat, and hence by inference the masculine role. Her flailing gestures were compellingly witch-like, all claw and nail, as if she were hell's under­cover agent (much as Verdi imagined her) sent to infiltrate the ruling circles of Scotland. Presumably it was to maintain her primacy that the witches were demoted to mere gypsies, both in musical style (with campfire glimmers from other operas) and in scenic presentation.

    On any assessment hell needed to be projected hot from the pit, where Edward Downeswas replacing Yuri Ahronovitch perhaps at rather short notice. The score, though generally well conducted, only sporadically sounded good enough to provide a convincing embodiment of evil. Or of goodness, for that matter. The absurdly naive strains that tell us what a dear old monarch Duncan is (or rather was, after a brief social call) render his taking-off readily defensible on the grounds of justifiable regicide.

    A good deal of the score, however, is masterly in its musico-dramatic imagination. Thus in the banquet scene Verdi offers an easy outpouring of flowing melody, as in all his drinking songs; this is then contrasted with the thickly coagulated chords of blood-boltered Banquo, announcing that the banquet is also about to come to a sticky end. Most hypnotic of all is the sleep-walking scene. On stage there are tranced gestures of wading and swimming in blood; the orchestra obsessively repeats that Verdian image (heard also in Rigoletto) of dark thoughts of death and murder sliding sidelong into the receptive and unresisting subconscious mind. Grace Bumbry was rather less compelling in dramatic than in vocal range and power. But the latter were strikingly effective, and often far mote relevant to Verdi's purposes than any glance or gesture. In this scene, her performance was raised by the power of music to impressive heights.

    Sherrill Milnes had evidently given much thought to his interpretation of Macbeth; but perhaps his portrayal was in a sense too like the character – over-ambitious. He rightly aimed to show a man enthralled, body and soul, by the demonic possession of his hellish spouse. But in consequence he hardly seemed to stand up for himself until after her final downfall; as if his virility had been much improved by his bereavement. The extreme compression of the action allowed him insufficient time for such detailed study of the springs of motivation. He always presented a fine soldierly figure, handsome of voice and bearing; but his earlier, more reflective, impersonation was more Hamlet than Macbeth.

    The rest of the cast was far from pale. Robert Lloyd was admirably convincing as Banquo; so, apart from un untimely entrance, was Franco Tagliavini as Macduff, while the strong voice and stage presence of David Hillman as Malcolm ensured him a successful Garden debut. But of course the opera stands or falls by its score and its principals. All three had moments (though they did not always coincide) of real star quality that will well repay an evening's observation. But be warned: you will find the addicts already there, wildly clapping and cheering long before each number ends. This desolating malpractice is fostered by the custom of taking curtain calls between acts, which seems to me aesthetically quite uncalled for. The spectacle of a company joining hands and running gleefully to the footlights, is surely more for the end of the pier than the middle of the opera. So anti-dramatic a proceeding goes to the wrong extreme, by suspending belief - rather suddenly, as if from a noose. One might even prefer a reversion to what Sheridan called “the established mode of springing off with a glance at the pit”.