Verdi’s Macbeth at the Grand Theatre, Geneva9:45, 12th February 2013
Review by Robert Thicknesse
Verdi had little interest in the subtexts of Shakespeare. (How could he, since he never read the stuff?) What he liked in the plays were ‘strong situations’, laid on with a trowel, and Macbeth in particular also provided a way out of the formal straitjacket of Italian opera: with its witches, soliloquies and scenes of supernatural horror and bloody offstage mayhem, it doesn’t lend itself to the standard scene-building routines of cavatina and cabaletta. His imagination freed and fired by those witches and especially by the glittering malevolence of Lady Macbeth, Verdi produced something whose fantasy and originality he wouldn’t match for a good decade. Shakespeare’s imagery, too, is on a different level from all other opera, and even in gutted Italian all the spooked resonances of daggers, rooky woods, dusty death and the rest come echoing through.
Christof Loy seems largely to have overcome his urge to sneer at Italian opera and now produces detailed, thoughtful and visually arresting dramas. His take on Macbeth was surprisingly classical – a vast, gloomy gothic baronial hall (Edwardian-ish), an enormous staircase vanishing into darkness at the back, the sepulchral light of a Scottish February sunset casting skeletal shadows on the wall, marvellously lit in spectral shades of grey – and it was matched by an elegant, understated orchestral performance by the Suisse Romande under Ingo Metzmacher, full of wormy inner detail, sorrow and mystery, occasionally short of melodrama but rising to thunderous climaxes in the earth-shattering act finales.
The closest to a directorial concept was that Macbeth fantasises the witches and their prophecies into being: it’s his domestics, transfigured in his fevered mind, who tell him what he wants to hear. His obsession with tearing away the veil of the future is prefigured at the beginning by a dumbshow of the sleepwalking scene, a loose scrim between the audience and Lady Macbeth slowly descending the distant stairs in a most Hitchcockian way to the melancholy prelude; bloodied bodies litter the floor, a vision of the final battle.
The show was notable for the Verdian debut of Jennifer Larmore. She has all the notes (except perhaps the final fateful D-flat) and a marvellous flashing-eyed presence, but beautiful singing was never really called for in a role that will always be copyrighted by Callas with her vocal scenery-chewing. In Larmore’s more suppressed interpretation, the hidden hysteria induced by the couple’s actions came through her jumpy, heart-in-mouth toast as she tried to jolly the banquet along, a basilisk look at her crumbling husband, and the final tranced scene where she finally became human and vulnerable.
The jaunty choruses of witches were energetically done by the Geneva chorus, who also put in a stunning turn as the shattered refugees from devastated Scotland. Davide Damiani was the dramatic but vocally unstable Macbeth; Christian van Horn sang Banquo, the piece’s moral weathervane, with great beauty, and Andrea Carè gave Macduff a stirring belt. The ballets Verdi added for Paris were included, not wholly successfully.