The great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi had something of an obsession with the key characters of Shakespearean drama. Macbeth, Falstaff, Othello and the (sadly unfinished) King Lear dominated much of Verdi’s life, allowing him to compose music that talks to the full gamut of human emotions and tragedy. Interestingly, this is the original 1847 Macbeth and not the revised one from some 20 years later, which is more popular in the modern operatic canon. It predates his biggest hits of Rigoletto and La Traviata; all three key works were written with the same librettist.
The “Scottish Play” is, of course, essentially a psychological thriller. Can the Macbeths get away with murder or will they pay the ultimate price for their unadulterated ambition?
The opera, with music by Verdi and libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, promises so much, but sadly this production doesn’t quite deliver – indeed, it is surprisingly underwhelming. And there has been plenty of time to get it right – as a co-production with West Australian Opera, it first opened in Perth in 2019 and then life intervened. It has now reopened for four performances in Adelaide.
The key creatives are the same in this iteration – director Stuart Maunder, sets and costumes by Roger Kirk and lighting by Trudy Dalgleish – but the cast is all new here. This is a semi-staged production, with a towering proscenium arch and some moveable columns but no real set; our focus is thus fully on the cast. The design is intended as “Braveheart meets Game of Thrones” but this aesthetic seems curiously unresolved. The lighting design does work exceptionally well, especially the striking red and white for the death of the king.
Adelaide-born soprano Kate Ladner has an impressive Verdi CV and has sung Lady Macbeth in previous productions. She has a beautiful clear voice and superb higher range. Her double aria in Act 1 is very good. Ladner’s Lady Macbeth uses all her feminine wiles to manipulate her husband into dark deeds and she is superb in the famous sleep-walking scene. José Carbó’s Macbeth never really stands a chance against his wife’s evil ambition. Carbó has a solid baritone and makes the most of his role vocally.
Excellent as these two singers are, we don’t feel enough chemistry and depth of passion between them to account for their shared crimes. Popular Australian bass Pelham Andrews is a standout as Banquo, striding the stage with bristling machismo and filling the auditorium with his rich, warm voice.
The witches are always crucial to the tragedy of Macbeth. Do they really have supernatural powers or is our belief enough to turn their magical words into self-fulfilling prophecies? The singers of the State Opera Chorus gave full voice to the witches, but are undermined by the costuming and make-up. They look more like Halloween trick or treaters than serious practitioners of the dark arts. Likewise, the male chorus are excellent in their various roles, but again our suspension of disbelief is hampered by the rather clichéd punk-inspired costumes. Full credit to chorus master Anthony Hunt for keeping the singers in fine form throughout a demanding two-and-a-half-hour production with multiple quick costume changes.
Verdi’s brilliant score is played with panache by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Finnegan Downie Dear, who also conducted the ASO’s last Symphony Series concert, and regular concertmaster Kate Suthers. The woodwind theme is especially beautiful. Downie Dear’s pacing is precise and they play with remarkable clarity if not much volume. The music needs to fill the auditorium, but it really feels somewhat subdued.
This will always be a great Verdian opera, but this production is disappointingly bland. It lacks the terrifying menace and deep psychological torment that makes Macbeth so memorable.
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide
State Opera SA with the ASO and conductor Finnegan Downie Dear
Director: Stuart Maunder AM
Set and Costume Designer: Roger Kirk AM
Lighting Designer: Trudy Dalgleish
Chorus Master: Anthony Hunt
Cast: José Carbό, Kate Ladner, Pelham Andrew
Macbeth will be performed until 16 September 2023.