December 5, 2022

Verdi’s Macbeth by Northern Ireland Opera, Belfast

by Charles FitzGerald

Despite the small size of Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Opera manages, with the clever linking of co-productions, to come up with something completely different every production and this without ever losing the essence of what opera is all about: drama in music with many messages.

Oliver Mear’s Maceth, set starkly by Ane Marie Woods in contemporary Scotland, proved a most remarkable production that served the music, Verdi’s stage conception and the Bard’s original extremely well. Here is brutality, underscored by witchery, opportunism, undue influence, the mob run riot. Here are echoes of Weimar, of Haiti, of Mussolini’s Italia, of Muhmar Ghadaffi, Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh and untrammeled rise to despotic power.

NIO proclaims it exists to assist and further the careers of young NI singers…hence there was youthfulness about this co-production with the very much larger (though not necessarily better) Welsh National Opera, which gave this Mac Beth ambience a contemporary “this IS what is really happening” reality in a time of proliferating draconian dictatorships and increasing mob rule. Hence MacBeth’s usurping of power is the gift of the mob, thugs in balaclavas knives instantly at the ready, violent, mindless brutes at a dictators’ beck and call an increasingly common scenario worldwide. Horrific evil practices are the stuff of the witchery; incantation serving to highlight the abomination of dismembered infants in carrier bags which serve to fuel the cauldron.

It is probably as well this production is not touring Scotland or England either at this time- the processional, pomp and Scottish circumstances of Duncan’s colours, all knightly Red and Gold banners of Scottish Lions; and Blue St Andrew’s Crossses (even on MacBeth’s kilt) emphasising pomp and panoply and national greatness. Actor Roy Heayberd gave Duncan a majesty that surely would have swung votes.

But in general, this was a stark, dark and often depressing saga, ably supported musically and dramatically stated by conducter Nicholas Chalmers, who drove both Ulster Orchestra and NIO Chorus at the cracking pace Verdi’s conception demands.

The Opera made much of the Verdi’s offering of choral opportunity-this NIO chorus left nothing whatever to be desired, never missing a trick of colour or emphasis to support the concept of Bruno Caproni’s portrayal of an out of control hoodlum gang leader who graduates through betrayal and murder to leading the mob, empowered by sinister black arts; despotic but lacking the fibre and consistency to hold and maintain his ill-gained, murderous and unwarranted accession to power. Caproni’s Macbeth, a brutal opportunist but never quite ruthless enough, has a natural, sonorous Italianate baritone, made much of the many vocal opportunities.

Rachael Nicholls’ Lady Macbeth proved the epitome of a coarse, housing estate wifie-a slut carousing at the top table in fur coat and nae knickers. No scheming grand dame here but a slattern running before the tide of revolution. With only two big sings, she made the most of the daunting but brittle opening aria and the Brindisi, and the more illuminating albeit taxing sleepwalking scene.

With much to do but little to sing, John Molloy gave Banquo’s only aria the works; Andrew Rees a competent, full-voiced in ensemble, MacDuff.

Essentially, it is Verdi’s great choruses which distinguish, an early Verdi work, (1865). He came back to it and revised it thoroughly for the Paris opera some 18 years later. One of his greatest decisions was to finish this dark opus with a superb chorus of hope for the future of well-ruled Scotland. It was wrong to overrule the composer and abandon this superb finale for the anti-climax ending of the original work. Was this decision politically motivated? if it was, it should not have been. If it was not, it was still the wrong decision.

by Charles FitzGerald

Opera Northern Ireland. Macbeth.

Gusippi Verdi. lib: MariusPiave.

Ulster Orchestra: Conducter: Nicholas Chalmers

Director: Oliver Mears, Designer AnneMarie Woods.( co-production with Welsh National Opera).

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