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‘Is This a Dagger Which I See Before Me?’: Two Macbeths at the Royal Opera House

'Macbeth'. Credits: Bill Cooper

In a quite interesting back-to-back occurrence, two productions linked to the source materials of Shakespeare’s play ‘Macbeth’ have recently been staged in the Royal Opera House. While they could be seen by the audiences so close together, one could not notice some striking similarities of intention and content between them. Firstly, both had their respective composers actively involved in the creation of libretto. Thus, Verdi’s opera ‘Macbeth’ which was first performed in Teatro della Pergola in Florence has a libretto written by Francesco Maria Piave with close supervision of Verdi himself, who then, dissatisfied with Piave, gave it to Alfredo Maffei to revise portions of the text. As Francesco Izzo writes, Verdi had control over the whole process and it is perhaps he who shifted the focus from Macbeth to Lady Macbeth whose lust for power was not lesser than her husband. Shostakovich wrote a libretto with Alexander Preys, choosing a novella (the author called it an essay) of Nikolai Leskov ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’ as his source material.

'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk'. Credits: Clive Barda

While for Verdi and his collaborators empowering Lady Macbeth with additional stage presence was a conscious decision, for Shostakovich and Pries the choice was made by Leskov, as the main character of the literary source is a woman Katerina. The influence of Alexander Ostrovsky’s play ‘Storm’ could be envisioned for Leskov himself, as Ostrovsky’s play also has a revolt of a young repressed woman driven by an extramarital passion. Thus, women rather then men as their central characters also unite these two productions. Two operas have strong and raw passions in its core, and that is one of the main reasons that makes them so musically powerful. Both drive the listener down to the darkest corners of human soul, revealing passion for power that consumes the ruling Scottish couple and then developing into madness and grief, and lust and desire mixed with desperate love for the wife of Zinovy Ismailov that also leads to deterioration of senses and murders. In both cases the passions had never been experienced by the leading characters before, but may be the order of their appearance is reversed: if for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth lust for power starts with the first murder and grows stronger with each of them, for Katerina Ismailova it is the burning passion that seeks the resolution in murders as her last resort, and not as her initial plan. It is the progresson of these unworldly emotions that eat a human being alive that is fascinates the viewers in both productions.

Interestingly (and may be by coincidence) both also are revivals of highly successful productions of the early 2000s: Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’ was first performed in the same version on 2002 and then revived in 2006 and 2011 before returning to ROH in 2018, while Shostakovich’s ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ in its current version was first put on in 2004 (and received an Olivier Award for it) and then revived in 2006. Both productions, unbelievably now as it seems, have also been conducted by Antonio Pappano, who also led the 2011 and 2018 revivals for ‘Macbeth’ and conducted both the original production and its consequent revivals for ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’. so for him both operas are almost personal. And there is one more thing that unites two operas – both having the world-renowned female opera stars as their leads: Anna Netrebko as Lady Macbeth and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Katerina Ismailova. With so many aspects in common, it is stunning to see how completely different they are in approach to their design and in overall atmosphere, both musical and theatrical. It is interesting to dwell on their respective decisions, strengths and possible weaknesses, and to trace the differences of impact they make on the viewer and listener.

'Macbeth' (Macbeth - Željko Lučić). Credits: Bill Cooper

Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’ in the production by the director Phyllida Lloyd and designer Anthony Ward (revived by Daniel Dooner) offers us a sumptuous atmosphere of the castle that could hardly be called Scottish or medieval. Everything here is hardly naturalistic or historically informed, but rather serves a purpose of revealing the inner workings of two souls consumed by passion to become a king and a queen. And as their way to its realization is sinful and murderous, thus the whole set is darkly lit and claustrophobic. Lighting designer Paule Constable does an excellent job of placing the streaks of light across the room (for instance, in the famous scene with the dagger it is the light that takes the form of a long knife appearing before Macbeth’s eyes) or directing the light on particular objects. However, overall the stage is swathed by black colours emanating from the walls that seem to be covered in leather. The Macbeths’ castle, while not having any particular characteristic feature of its own apart from the fact that it is narrow, with walls almost moving to the centre to make the place even smaller, is a luxurious trap with no visible exit.

'Macbeth' (Macbeth - Željko Lučić, Macduff - Yusif Eyvazov). Credits: Bill Cooper

The director makes a special effort to highlight the fact that it is also barren and void of love, however much the two characters might unconsciously dream of it. Thus, in the second half of the opera there is a scene where white-clad children resembling angels are gathering and climbing a big double bed where Macbeth (baritone Željko Lučić) and his wife Lady Macbeth (Anna Netrebko) are sat, and a wonderful family scene of the evening book-reading starts. But then the children are taken away by the very witches who fortold the fate earlier and the beds are taken apart to form two solitary beds in different parts of the room. It is in the absence of other powerful emotions that greed for power and later madness and despair fill the hearts of two protagonists. This powerful desire is not hidden, it is sung openly in Verdi’s arias, may be losing on psychological finess, but gaining in the transfixing impact it has on the audiences. Lady Macbeth’s aria in Act I scene 2 when she is still waiting for her husband after receiving his letter starts with ‘Vieni! t’afretta!’ and then develops into the very difficult in its wide diapason section of ‘Or tutti sorgete’. It channels the character to the fullest, with Netrebko making her first striking appeareance – her hair billowing over her shoulders, her eyes piercing the walls and the air around her, already hinting on her future madness ingrained already in this moment. Her aria that resumes the first half, with the crown in full view and standing in her champer like a chopped head of a dead soldier, like a gilt epitome of possible tropheys, is even more passion-driven, with Netrebko becoming a wild animal in her jagged approaches and jumps to the crown under the glass. It is quite amazing how the singer projects the passion in her movements so freely and even frighteningly, while also singing another difficult succession of notes.

'Macbeth' (Macbeth - Željko Lučić, Lady Macbeth - Anna Netrebko). Credits: Bill Cooper

Gold is another colour that dominates the production. In Lloyd’s and Ward’s powefully economical vision where multiple meanings are condensed and laid bare before the viewer, it encaptures this very object of human desire in this opera – power, wealth, domination. However, the director and designer opnely proclaim their verdict on the morality of possession of the objects of power where goals justify the means. Interestingly, gold is already a present and powerful element in old Duncan’s (John O’Toole) appearance who is no longer a victim, but just another medium of the same viccissitude. The bed where he is found resembles a golden grave, while his approaching carriage is pure gold (horses included) that duplicates itself incessantly as there is also a golden toy model of Duncan’s procession. Not only the crown sits under in glass case, glistening like jewel but unattainable, but also the possessors of the crowns themselves climb on a stage within the stage that is a golden cube that occasionally (especially during the final battles) begins to move and swirl. Its movements are both a symbol of the instability of this golden cage and of its dizzying effect on the heads of those inside it. Thus, when finally Malcolm is standing victorious inside it, one begins to suspect he would not be exempt from the corrupting force of this space that will kill and torture everyone inside it by its pure glitter, excessive light and maddening movements.

'Macbeth'. Credits: Bill Cooper

Two other colours of production are similarly imbued with multiple meanings. Red is an obvious choice for blood, murder, death. Interestingly, it is the witches (and there is a whole chorus of them in the opera) that sport it as part of their attires and head scarfs arranged as turbans. Macduff also has it in the colouring of his clothes as he is the channel of revenge, and there is blood on the hands of the murderers in the first act. Another colour – white – symbolizes the unworldliness, purity, but also madness and loss of grip with reality. The apparatition of white-clad Anna Netrebko in a high-standing bath behind and above the main stage set shaking and rubbing her hands as a mad fury rather than a living woman is a scene that remains in one’s mind forever. Her sleep-walking aria in this scene ‘Una macchia è qui tuttora’ gives Netrebko another moment to showcase her voice through fragility and melancholy, with remnants of former passions still tormenting her like snakes. But it is also children (Banquo’s son, Macduff’s progeniture and angel children of Macbeths’ dream) that are dressed in white. It is a colour of buddhist calm, of all passions cooled and transfomed into new meanings, a colour of movement beyond the earthly feelings that nailed characters to the ground. And as such, it is one of the most effective colours of the set.

'Macbeth' (Lady Macbeth - Anna Netrebko). Credits: Bill Cooper

Antonio Pappano is excellent in musically organizing this powerful production that receives another impetus from his emotional drive and added passion. Pappano brings out the full forces of the orchestra in the chorus scenes that are one of the most tragic and impressive in Verdi’s opera. The production starts with witches appearing almost like an army of samurai. They continue to be present as apparatitions throughout the opera. In the second half it is the chorus of opressed people in exodus out of Scotland that have a wonderful ‘Patria oppressa!’ piece before giving place to Macduff (David Junghoon Kim, alternating with Yusif Eyvazov) singing a beautiful ‘singer showcase’ aria of grief mixed with strength and readiness to challenge the existing state of affairs. Pappano, while particularly striking in his mastery of ouverture and mass scenes (including final fights), also gives space to individual singers of the production, including Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as stately and noble Banquo. Željko Lučić was extremely good in duets with Lady Macbeth, underscoring the tide of passion with his low, guttural baritone. Anna Netrebko was not always at the top of her voice, giving away some insecure sounds towards the end of the production and sometimes revelling in the power of her voice rather than seeking the nuances. But overall her charisma, the natural beauty of her timbre and professionalism of her articulation, as well as her physique that matched the image of Lady Macbeth made her a true star of the production. Thus, this opera went for raw, pure, condensed passions, empowering Verdi’s music with voices of the world’s lead singer and a very symbolical, striking set design.

'Macbeth' (Macbeth - Željko Lučić, Lady Macbeth - Anna Netrebko). Credits: Bill Cooper

It is in a completely different emotional range and with much more psychological nuance (as befits the 20th century opera in comparison to the 19th century one) and probably with an even more profound impact on its audiences that Shostakovich’s ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ appeared on the stage of the Royal Opera House straight after the runs of Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’ were finished. The plot of the opera is well known to Russian readers (as Leskov’s novella has long become a classic and has been made into various film adaptations) but may be less so to English audiences, unless they saw it before or went to V&A exhibition ‘Opera, Passion and Politics’ in autumn-winter 2018. Katerina Ismailova is married to a weakling merchant’s son Zinovy Ismailov who is barely present, as he is away on some business. She is always under supervision of her father-in-law Boris Ismailov who also has a barely hidden lust for her. She falls in love with a new worker of the house (the action of the novella is in the 19th century) Sergey and to defend her right for her first true passion she poisons Boris, and starts to live with Sergey as if he were her husband. When Zinovy arrives he is killed by the couple who hide his body in the storeroom. During the wedding ceremony of Sergey and Katerina the corpse is discovered and they are imprisoned. In prison Sergey, who has been losing interest in Katerina as their passion became a murderous burden for him, accuses her of ruining his life and has an affair with a younger Sonyetka. After giving her warm stockings to Sergey and seeing them on her rival, Katerina kills Sonyetka. The future of both is uncertain, but the murderous path of a woman fully consumed by her first, last and only passion might not stop here.

'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' (Katerina - Eva-Maria Westbroek, Boris - John Tomlinson, Sergey - Brandon Jovanovich). Credits: Clive Barda

The production of ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ is very different from the Phillida Lloyd’s ‘Macbeth’ and in a way is much more inventive both in design and in the interpretation of the story revealed in character’s actions and movements on stage. The director Richard Jones has a concept of even more passion-driven characters than Leskov’s novella and Shostakovich’s opera implies. It seems that here everyone has hidden or open sexual desires that he or she cannot properly master. The old Boris (John Tomlinson) has lust for Katerina (he openly grabs her and kneels before her, and all his obsession with other men is derived from his own desire), Katerina (Eva-Maria Westbroek) desires Sergey, Sergey (Brandon Jovanovich) wants Sonyetka (Aigul Akhmetshina), the workers in one of the most daring scene of the production try to rape the cook Aksinya (Rosie Aldridge) and the Shabby Peasant (Peter Bronder) nurtures hidden desire for Katerina. However, Shostakovich’s scoring, that overflows to the wings and boxes of the hall, with trumpets sometimes appearing in the top of the house, supports such nightmarish sea of passions and is only empowered by Jones’ daring, but never vulgar vision.

'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' (wedding scene). Credits: Clive Barda

The set designer’s John Macfarlane’s and costume designer Nicky Gillibrand’s decisions on the set are, however, much more sporadic and sometimes even disjointed than those of Anthony Ward in Verdy’s ‘Macbeth’. It has a surreal feel because of the strange, though never appaling mix of physical realities introduced into production. It seems to have elements of Soviet period such as a black-and-white television where Sergey, bored, watches boxing matches and Soviet militia forms worn by Police Inspector (Mikhail Svetlov). On the other hand, in the beginning there is shabbiness and austerity (faded wallpaper, awful and dirty kitchen, lonely bedroom) that could never be characteristics for a merchant’s family, while the whole idea of merchant with a group of workers does not fit into the Soviet epoch transposition idea. The subsequent (very inventive, happening in front of our eyes, with even the wall paper being rolled from top to the bottom) changes of the design of the room represent Katerina and Sergey’s increasingly lush and pompous lifestyle that, however, more and more burdens them under bourgeois objects of wealth. They could also be hardly attributed to a particular Soviet era and look more like a Western-influenced caricature of a petty bourgeois lifestyle. Big backs of trucks from where the prisoners appear could imply further neglect of the particular epoch, as these cars look far too modern. There is also excessive and strange exuberance in dressing and choreographing the choruses (original choreographer Linda Dobell), with first the workers dressed in something extremely shabby and filling the small room to finally attack and rape Aksinya, while the guests at the wedding raise their bottles to drink in groups (an attempt to synchronize their movements with music) and are dressed also very haphazardly that creates the feeling of extreme eclecticism.

'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk'. Credits: Clive Barda

However, the music of Shostakovich conducted by Antonio Pappano and the performances of main singers are so powerful and psychologically consuming that one begins to accept the production’s style as part and parcel of its unusual emotional drive that conveys the constant presence of raw and dark desires in our lives. While the design contains the obvious elements of irony and satire in showing how passion is unescapably drowned in objects and luxuries and dries out when underpinned by murder and mutual criminal dependence, Eva-Maria Westbroek who stars in this opera, sings her part in fashion that defends her characters and heightens her endeavour to the level of true heroism. It is hard not to fill compassion for Katerina in the scene when she cannot bear her loneliness when she is lying in the bed in her room and knows that Boris is lurking outside with the gun. She tries to build defences to Sergey but we see how she is almost doomed to develop this burning passion for him in this vacuum. It is obvious that she is loosing her lover during the following luxury scenes, and although here one murder follows the other, we almost feel she needed to do that in order to save her hopes. And her final aria in the darkness before the two prison trucks is an outburst of pain and loneliness mixed with pain, guilt and despair, and in this moment one feels the depths of her ruined and struggling soul.

'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' (Katerina Ismailova - Eva-Maria Westbroek). Credits: Clive Barda

It is through the mastery and exquisite delivery full of lyricism and tragedy of Eva-Maria Westbroek that Katerina raises to these emotional heights. Her partners are also very good in supporting her. Brandon Jovanovich conveys the sheer physical power and arrogance of Sergey without ever defending him by showing glimpses of true emotion towards Katerina in him. Sergey is guilty of riding the wagon of Katerina’s passion from the very start, and even the murder where he serves as an accomplice only bores him further and makes him more aloof. John Tomlinson is outstanding as a jealous father-in-law, creating a stuffed and burdensome atmosphere in his scenes with Katerina, but also showing moments of true tenderness towards the woman that makes us feel he is potentially more drawn to her than he wants to show. Mikhail Svetlov has a long scene in a police office that conveys some additional satirical elements of the opera, with policemen all being drunk and lusty as everyone else in the world of this production. Being Russian, he sings without accent (the same is true for Aigul Akhmetshina, who brings new notes of youthful and bitter eroticism in portraying her Sonyetka), while other singers are rewardingly accurate in delivering Russian lines. Antonio Pappano once again masterfully conveyed the power and passion of Shostakovich’s music, not stooping before its intricacies of rhythms, varied dynamics of orchestration and changes in atmoshere from one scene to another. It is also Pappano that was the counterweight to eclectism of the directorial decision by bringing the sense of unity to this extremely interesting production that had outstanding insights in it. One looks forward to this acclaimed conductor’s new appearances in the current and future seasons at ROH as they are always full of his vitality, integrity and outstanding musicianship.

'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' (Katerina - Eva-Maria Westbroek Sergey - Brandon Jovanovich). Credits: Clive Barda

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