Verdi, Verdi Verdi – we came, we saw, we were conquered. Melbourne Opera’s Macbeth makes it three major productions in Melbourne this month featuring operas by arguably the greatest composer of grand opera. Opera Australia has led the way with a hi-tech Aida, and an Ernani where the making of theatre overlaps with the performance of it. Working within a substantially smaller budget, renowned director of stage and screen, Bruce Beresford, has created in Macbeth an experience that gains rather than loses power without lavish, often distracting, staging.
He was ably abetted by Greg Carroll’s set – for the most part, a menacingly gloomy construction of imposing black stonework, imaginatively reconfigured for each change of scene. It provided an appropriately sinister atmosphere for Beresford’s evocation of 11th century Scotland where the natural order was about to be overthrown. When it was announced that this production would be given a more naturalistic treatment, those who had given either a big cheer or a sigh of relief would have been gratified that costumes and settings worked to support Verdi’s melodrama without upstaging it. Rob Sowinski’s lighting design was spot on – plenty of shadowy ambiance while ensuring that the singers were clearly visible, most notably Helena Dix as Lady Macbeth.
Verdi’s was far from being the only victory being celebrated on opening night. The audience embraced Helena Dix, rejoicing that she had not only survived an almost fatal struggle with COVID-19 but had managed to overcome its potential vocal ravages so magnificently. Simon Meadows might have been superb in the title role, confirming his status as one of Australia’s foremost baritones, but it was Dix whose focused energy propelled the drama. The steel that allowed her to conquer a horrifying prospect seemed to be reflected in her characterization of a woman bent on power at any cost. She simply glittered, inviting speculation as to why such a seemingly strong and controlling woman should later suffer from remorse and commit suicide. Vocally, Dix gave an intense, vividly coloured performance, investing every phrase with meaning. Her command of technique allowed her to also encompass the demanding range with considerable power on the lower notes and soaring top notes. Her mastery of coloratura and some beautifully pure, well-shaped soft singing were reminders of how splendidly she had sung the role of Bellini’s Norma.
Although there is only one principal female role in Macbeth, Eleanor Greenwood impressed as the Lady in waiting, her warm, well-projected soprano and assured stage presence lending further substance to the role and scene.
Adrian Tamburini had scored a major success as Fasolt in Melbourne Opera’s previous production, Das Rheingold. His particular timbre of resonant pathos was ideally suited to the role; I, for one, will now always associate it with his voice and thought it would be ideally suited to the role of Banquo – which it was. In addition to having musicality and an exceptionally fine bass baritone voice, Tamburini is a charismatic actor.
As Macduff, Samuel Sakker was excellent, providing one of the most hair-raising moments in the opera as he reacted to the appalling sight of the murdered King Duncan. The burnished power of his tenor voice shone in the ensembles and he made a formidable foil to Meadow’s portrayal of Macbeth, which grew in expressive drive as the opera progressed. Sakker was also integral to some of the highlights of the chorus work, such as at the end of Act 1 and in the first scene of Act 4, where Macduff has joined the refugees fleeing Macbeth’s unhinged cruelty.
The chorus plays a crucial role in the opera, which begins with the witches’ scene. Instead of three hags greeting Macbeth as he and Banquo return from the battlefront, Verdi has given us nearly thirty-three of them. Similarly, the roles of Banquo’s two assassins have been given to a large male chorus. While the witches sounded surprisingly youthful, there was no lack of energy or enthusiasm in what was basically well-disciplined, robust chorus work.
Commendable work in more minor roles included Robert Macfarlane’s Malcolm and Darcy Carroll’s Messenger. Both singers were great assets in the final ensemble.
Under the baton of Greg Hocking, Melbourne Opera Orchestra gave a worthy account of Verdi’s score. Ever reliable, Ben Spiers was a strong Concertmaster, and there were some striking moments such as the woodwind wail at the beginning of the final Act chorus, and Andrew Jacobs’ plangent cor anglais during Lady Macbeth’s sleep walking scene, which also featured wonderfully delicate string playing
Melbourne Opera has chalked up another triumph in Macbeth. One of the many remarkable features of this non-government-funded company is the willingness of so many people to support it, and it is not only those generous philanthropists, who contribute to making Melbourne the cultural capital of Australia. As another audience member pointed out to me, among the list of names under “Set Construction and Painting” we have Shakira Dugan, Stephen Marsh and Rebecca Rashleigh – all principal artists with Victorian Opera – along with Australian Shakespeare Company and Opera Australia. Such an exemplary cooperative enterprise deserves every support we can give it. Time for government bodies to step up.
Photo credit: Robin Halls
Heather Leviston reviewed the performance of Macbeth presented by Melbourne Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre on March 18, 2021.