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Just around the corner

macbeth_amazonCubes and Macbeth seem to have been a successful pairing in the recent Regietheater.

Graham Vick’s production of Macbeth at the Teatro alla Scala in the 1997/98 season had become famous, or infamous, for centering its spirit and energies on a big cube dominating both sets and singers. David Pountney exploited the same idea of a “cubic” Macbeth in his production of the Verdi masterpiece for the Opernhaus Zürich in 2001 (staged a few years later also in San Francisco), now re-released on DVD by ArtHaus Musik. 

The sets by Stefanos Lazaridis revolve around a few essential ideas: in addition to the cube, much smaller than the one used by Vick but used following similar criteria, and often enriched with mirrors in its interior, one discerns in the upper part of the stage a sky viewed in perspective with a big hole in the middle.  On the left side there is an immense wall that grows progressively narrower giving depth to the sets.

In addition to these elements, there is an occasionally dropped, transparent veil representing the quadrant of a big clock (an idea present in an acclaimed production of another Verdi opera) and a blood red lightning bolt obliquely crossing the set (which brings to my mind a Carmen currently enjoying favor at the Met).

It is difficult, at least for me, to trace a unitary thought, a basic concept in Pountney’s production, which is very heavy on symbolism. The ideas assume the value of often ingenious, fragmentary intuitions, which confer a particular effect to that precise moment in which they are fulfilled.  I was not able to either catch a central idea, a bearing wall, or discern a sort of “hierarchy” among such intuitions.  It could be argued that this hierarchy is provided by the musical and dramaturgical structure of the opera, which moulds such conceptions.

Let us focus on the last act.  Pountney uses the cube, whose functions vary moment by moment according to the plot, to an effect of strong emotional impact.  As the chorus ends “Patria oppressa”, the cube shows Macduff’s wife and children, dead but rearranged in a still tableau.  Surrounded by a blue neon light, as cold as death itself, they are now observing Macduff without being able to interact with him.  The tenor begins his aria and while he is singing, the wall of the cube slowly closes itself.

The “advancing forest” is another highly charged scene.  Similarly to what had happened with Macduff’s murdered family, now it is Macbeth who, after singing “La morte o la vittoria” with the chorus, sees inside the cube the standing body of his wife, who falls down only after he has kissed her. The idea of Macbeth having one last love gesture towards his own tormentor in the moment of highest war-like emphasis is very moving.

As soon as Lady falls, a crowd of blindfold children (granted, an obvious symbol of innocence conquering evil), beats the cube with their branches, creating for a deafening noise of defeat and death for Macbeth.  The impact with the forest is not visual at first, but auditive and tactile, as Macbeth feels the vibrations of those blows.  Macduff causes Macbeth’s death by repeatedly piercing the cube with a sword, which never touches the protagonist: an original, effective stylized death.

Pountney’s treatment of the witches puzzles me.  Each witch does something pertaining to women’s daily activities: one is gardening, one is polishing her nails, yet another one is dusting and so on.  Should my intuitions be right, perhaps feminists might have a good reason to get upset.

Macbeth and his wife are portrayed like two reckless youths attracted to the thrill that absolute power can generate.  Pountney conveys the couple’s sense of youthful inebriation in the Banquet scene, as Lady Macbeth amuses herself by childishly pouring wine on the table and her guests.  Macbeth watches her and tries hard to suppress his giggles, while observing at the same time the guests’ reactions.

I find this an example of high psychological realism.   They obviously have an intense sexual affinity, apparently a sadomasochist relationship: she first appears on top of the cube (their domain), tied to the ground with an iron rope, and wearing a dominatrix outfit that she will remove only in the sleepwalking scene.  Soprano Paoletta Marrocu must be commended for agreeing to wear so wardrobe malfunction-friendly a getup that even a porn star might have second thoughts.

Visually, with her attractive figure and high cheekbones (as well as the same hairstyle of an early ‘70s Maria Callas), the Italian soprano is a striking Lady.  She plunges into her role with gusto and ferocity.  Although not an original concept by any means, it is obvious that she is well aware that her husband Macbeth is sexually dependent on her and exploits it to achieve her supreme goal.  She is a charismatic performer, one of those artists who are able to draw everyone’s attention just by their stage demeanor, the way they move their hands or the intensity of their eyes.  From an interpretative point of view, Marrocu’s Lady Macbeth is an unqualified success.

Vocally, things are not so linear.  While I like her focused, almost piercing, laser-like timbre, which I find rather suitable to this role, her instrument is patently several sizes too small for this role.  Moreover, its extremities are highly problematic.   The low register is weak, almost soubrettish, and virtually everything above an A natural lacks roundness.  She seems to attack her high notes without exploiting her head resonances and the obvious result is a pushed, harsh, guttural top where flat pitch is the norm rather than the exception.

Since her agility is quite accurate and expressively used, Ms. Marrocu gives her best in the Brindisi and especially in the impeccable act one duet, where trills and tricky acciaccaturas, like the A flat on the word “delira”, are wonderfully executed.   In the Brindisi, by performing the daccapo in a completely different manner, she succeeds in giving an altogether different value to the music of the first exposition, her agility now expressing astonishment and confusion.

As mentioned before, she is similarly compelling in the first duet with her husband, which is however idiotically butchered:  half of the presto “Vien! Vieni altrove ogni sospetto” is cut.

When the circumstances allow him to sing pathetically and softly, Thomas Hampson is a convincing protagonist. Although his imperfect technique was already obvious in its tentative approach to the passaggio, in 2001 his voice was still in decent shape; he was prone to modulate the sound, despite some opacity in the mezza voce.  In most of his act one monologue (“Mi si affaccia un pugnal”) and the following duet, the light phonation helps him considerably.

Whenever the writing becomes tense and violent, he tends to indulge in histrionics, with nearly spoken or declaimed inflections (“O mio terror”, “O me perduto”), or to produce forced and pressed or open sounds: in “Pietà, rispetto, amore” both the F of “la bestemmia” and the G flat in the cadenza on “nenia tua”, as well as the the high G on “o la vittoria” are belted wide open.   The finale of the act three duet with the soprano turns into a contest as to who can sing flatter.

Hampson’s Macbeth lives in perennial fear.  With his constantly bulging eyes, his king is a weakling and a whiner.  I have no objection to such an interpretation, which, however, is presumably a consequence of his scarce vocal tonnage.

Roberto Scandiuzzi and Luis Lima are perfectly adequate in their respective roles of Banco and Macduff.

Franz Welser-Möst’s reading of the score is precise and analytic as well as cold and mechanical.  His orchestra plays quite well, with nearly surgical accuracy, but sounds restrained, almost detached.  Let us consider “Patria oppressa”: this chorus sounds so neutral, devoid of every emotion; the great crescendo under “ quasi voglia impietosito” is barely perceived.  There is no trace of the typical Verdian expansion.  Or the sleepwalking scene: while the soprano tries to employ a wide palette of colors and accents, the conductor thwarts her with his heavy and slow pace.

Just because it is a sleepwalking scene doesn’t mean it has to turn into expressive catatonia.

  • OpinionatedNeophyte

    Pountney’s treatment of the witches puzzles me. Each witch does something pertaining to women’s daily activities: one is gardening, one is polishing her nails, yet another one is dusting and so on. Should my intuitions be right, perhaps feminists might have a good reason to get upset.

    I was recently listening to an on-air talk by the author of a new book about the impact of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and I think her work may provide an alternate reading of this choice to depict the witches in this way. Friedan’s argument is that housewives are angry, upset, unsatisfied and unhappy because the daily chores of domestic life do not intellectually stimulate their minds. There is, Friedan argues, an excess of mental energy that is wasted and manifests psychologically in the form of “housewives syndrome,” anxiety disorder, depression or just general crabbiness (January Jones’ character on Mad Men is clearly a Friedan-inspired housewife).

    Its not that large a leap to imagine that excess mental energy as super natural energy. The “witches” in this case may be wearing masks of domesticity, but they have managed to take control of their excess energy and can direct it towards purposeful supernatural ends rather than having it destroy them from within as Friedan suggests was happening to American housewives. Its a possibility anyway.

    I’m also intrigued by the cube. I was wondering if it were possible for the cube to represent some kind of apex of technology and suggest that Mac and Lady Mac’s regime is producing some kind of environmental devastation. Or maybe its a-hammer-over-the-head level idea around the cold logic of math and symmetry as represented by the political calculations of the Macbeths? I think I’ll have to Netflix this to get a better sense of the meaning of the cube. Perhaps I can overdub Verrett for the Lady Macbeth solos.

  • Sparafucile

    I saw this is San Francisco in 2007. It’s hardly a surprise that even a sympathetic reviewer can make no sense of it; and the green typewriter is not mentioned.
    Thomas Hanson was great that day.

  • Baritenor

    I saw this production in San Francisco. I’d say you were a lot kinder than I was, Ercole. Three years on, this MACBETH was the absolute low point of my Opera Going at San Francisco Opera. Hampson gave a fine performance, but the production (and the soprano) was a mess. Its still what I immediately think of when I hear the word “Eurotrash.”

    In San Francisco, the gimmick with the witches was worsened/enhanced, since the household items they each carried included an Ipod and a Hula Hoop. One was even blowing bubbles.

    I like this review, but I gotta say you left out my five favorite “Inexplicable moments of Regie” associated with this production:

    5. The banquet tables are troughs filled with dirt, that Zombies eventually pop out of.

    4. The fact that Banqo spends his aria posting “Missing” posters. For who? No man can say.

    3. Duncan, for some reason, is costumed as an Egyptian mummy.

    2. The Murder of Banqo is accomplished by three assassins in drag, who hold up a sign reading “Banqo per Consigliere”. He is then stabbed with a knife hidden in a bouquet of flowers, which, from the audience, looks simply like he is being killed by a bunch of hyacinths.

    1. One of my all-time favorite moments of directorial excess: directly after Macbeth’s death, Banqo’s son Fleance (a super) carries on a typewriter and places it on the prompters Box. He exits, leaving it there for the rest of the opera. And the entire audience scratches their heads.

    • Baritenor

      CORRECTION: In attempting to remember how Verdi and Piave spelled “Banquo”, I mistook the c for a q. It is of course “Banco.”

    • OpinionatedNeophyte

      Thats a big ol bag of what the fuck right there. Sarah Palin take note. Perhaps my call for Zombie Opera wasn’t so off after all, in fact it seems I’m behind the curve.

      I do get the Banquo per Consigliere thing though, politics is murder and you have to be really careful about your supporters most of all. Everyone in politics is in a kind of “drag” because nothing is real there. If John Boehner isn’t doing the most wonderfully drag (by which I mean exaggerated to the point that you demonstrate the false, constructed nature thereof) version of the all American male I don’t know who could top him.

      But the typewriter….yeah I’ve got nothing.

    • In the first draft of this review I had actually made a list of all the “oddities”, including the typewriter, the drag queens assassins, the corpses on the banquet table, etc and then I decided against it because the review would have been 2,500 words. Duncan (as female dancer) didn’t look like a mummy to me. He reminded me of Baldwin, the leper king.

    • Batty Masetto

      killed by a bunch of hyacinths

      Sounds a bit like the Poplavskaya debate here a while ago.

  • EF, thanks yet again for a most balanced and thought out review.

    I happen to love this production, having seen it only on DVD : perhaps watching it live, in a theatre, made it look precious and absurd -- my take is that it ‘filmed’ very well.

    The various symbolisms worked on me as some kind of a surreal dream, I didn’t feel the need to ‘interpret’ for myself every occurence of the typewriter, or the way the apparitions’ scene was directed, or even the drag assassins. For myself, it all combined to make an eerie, tense atmosphere. In totalitarian regimes many strange things are prone to happen, and so it is here.

    The ‘mummy’ king was immediately graspable -- Verdi treats him as less than a character, he’s just an idea, and rightly so. That’s what we havce here -- a golden dream of days past, glimpsed from afar.

    I also loved the closed ward witches. Really loved them. Verdi’s music for the witches used to have been criticised as banal and unworthy of the rest of the opera. 18 years after the premiere, when he revised a lot of the opera, he didn’t feel it was necessary to change a single note of the witches’ music. And one must ask oneself why. I think Pountney takes us very close to the essence of Verdi’s thought. Instead of trying to make the witches ‘unwordly’ or ‘frightening’ and thus creating a visual clash with the music (d’Anna’s film is a notable example), he goes along with Verdi’s conception of the witches as outwardly mild, innocent nutcases, each with her own fetish. It reminds me a lot of the nice, though weird neighbours in Rosemarie’s Baby. In a way, this kind of visual depiction is much more unsettling than a usual gothic-horror tableau. And works bang-on with Verdi’s music.
    The somnambulist scene is simply astonishing IMO, with Dama’s automatic writing, her drawing of a crown especially sinister, making me feel at once horrified and compassionate for this fixated character.

    I thought Welser-Most’s musical vision was no less important, yes, perhaps cold at some nodal points, not giving us the wonderful Verdi ‘swell’ or slancio. But it made Verdi’s score sound unbelievably modern and penetrating. Far from presenting the amazing chiaroscuro range of Verdi’s score, as Abbado in his various (live or other) perfect interpretations, he presented a valid, intelligent option. Not the usual extrovert ‘dramatic’ reading, a-la Muti or Schippers. Very close in spirit to Goldschmidt’s astonishing Glyndebourne reading, with Grandi.

    Of course I acknowledge that both protagonists (antagonists?) were sub-par vocally and not really able to fill Verdi’s vocal demands or ‘fill out’ the phrases when needed, but IMO both were extremely successful scenically, especially if you remember that Verdi didn’t exactly want ‘singing’ in this opera. He wanted something entirely different, indeed the only way I can interpret his various letters and the several anecdotes tied up with Macbeth is by regarding this work as pre-Brechtian, and this is what we get here.

    I especially liked the interaction between Marrocu and Hampson, their relationship clearly having a Sado-masochistic vein, bloodlust, lust for power feeding the eroticism. I loved the way in which, visually, they ‘crossed over’, exchanging visual attributes by the middle of the work, manifest in the changing hairstyle.

    I thought this was the best scenic work I ever saw Hampson achieve. Here he was, for once, completely credible, involved and involving. His coloring of the ‘dagger’ monologue was minutiae, as well as his beautiful line at the act 2 finale. Of course the role is vocally not for him, in any imaginable way. But he faced the challange and made something unique and lasting (for me) out of it.

    Marrocu is a, how do you call it, animale di palcoscenico, yes? Completely worn out instrument, jaded and faded, with no real chest voice, she dominates, and her bel canto schooling makes the various stylistic excursions into that area sound, for once, completely at one with the rest of the writing for Dama. Clearly intelligent, both musically and scenically, and evidently having a grim sense of humor ready at the call (the chilling way she taps at the table at the 1nd act finale) makes for a real character study, not an eye-roller like Zampieri.

    • grimoaldo

      I also saw this production in SF in 2007. I really enjoyed it and I LOVED the witches, for the reasons you give, CF. I have often thought of those witches with their stylish hats, one with a hula-hoop, one with her phone, etc.
      I remember I was there on the first night of the run and there were lots of boos for Poutney when he took his curtain call, which struck me as rather amusing since I had seen many productions of his at the English National Opera which were much more extreme than this.
      I enjoyed hearing Hampson sing the role live. The rest of the cast were merely routine or worse. The Lady, Georgina Lukacs, was very raw and wayward in her singing.

  • manou

    I saw this on the Arts Channel with my four-year old grand-daughter who wanted to know “the story”. I was very creative…

    Anyway -- she loved it until her mother forcibly removed her from my nefarious influence.