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.