I’ve had three events in the last three days. This does not happen. I don’t allow it to happen. But the scheduling fairies gang up on you sometimes. It occurred to me a little late on Tuesday that the reason I had been planning to do a first round-up Ask Me a Question answer blog is because I was about to have three things in three days but, you know, I sat down to write a blog and I got distracted . . .
AND I’M NOT FINISHED BEING DISTRACTED, because I want to complain about the Royal Opera House’s Macbeth, which was Wednesday’s event. This is Verdi’s take on Shakespeare, and I’m totally into opera-libretto versions of Shakespeare because they’re shorter. And of course I’m heavily into Verdi full stop.*
However. In the first place it was another insanely ugly production. Black on black, mostly, which is going to be even more splendid in the live theatre where you’ve paid major money to not be able to see what’s happening on stage. At least you get (frequently unfortunate**) close ups in the cinema so you have some clue what’s going on . . . although that’s not all that much help here since . . . what IS going on? Surreal is overrated.***
And let me get something else out of the way. I am SO TIRED of people prating on about what a strong woman Lady Macbeth is. She’s not! She’s an evil nag. Full points for naked amoral ambition, but what does she actually do besides embody a perfect male fantasy of the nightmare wife? And she’s barren.& It doesn’t get any more misogynistic. She’s a terrific character, and Verdi does give her lots of wicked ranting . . . but she isn’t the one that kills the king. She smears a little blood on the guards, big freaking deal. Macbeth orders all the other deaths, with her gnawing his backside no doubt, but she’s still only active through her husband.&& And Macbeth is the one who says, oh freaking doodah Birnam Wood&&& I can at least go down fighting, and Lady Macbeth is the one who goes meshuga and offs herself.%
. . . I’m already over my standard blog-post word target and I haven’t got to what I came here to say. Arrrrgh.%% Which is:
Anna Netrebko, as Lady Macbeth, basically blows everyone else off the stage.
I don’t know what kind of an actor she’d be if she only had words to say. But that embodying of the music—she does that superbly. She’s got a voice to kill for anyway—erm, in the circumstances let’s say to swoon for—and it’s been interesting, over the years, listening to it evolve. She started out a very high, fancy, twiddly soprano—she did a mad scene as Lucia [di Lammermoor] to chill the blood%%% for example. I love the opera but loathe the character, even as wet useless opera heroines go she’s extreme, but you have a soprano like Netrebko investing all that musical strength in that madness, and it, she, you, the opera, flies.
As here. I don’t think I’ve seen Netrebko play evil before, and she may not have had the darkness in her voice to do it till recently: but she does it here. I found her riveting. While she’s centre stage I forgot how idiotic that stage was.
And nobody else comes close. Which, particularly when the production is as big a sack of lame monkeys as this one is, is a problem. The cast all have the voices, but only Netrebko has the authority, the conviction, the commitment, the belief. The blokes are all guys with nice notes who have competently memorised the score. Macbeth, during his mad scene, now granted the staging of the dinner party is a haphazard mess, but he’s just a flabby middle-aged guy rolling around on the floor. As the friend I was with said, he doesn’t draw you into his madness. Netrebko does. Banquo has some presence but he’s killed too early to add much gravitas, and almost anybody can look effectively ominous as a silent ghost stalker.
And Macduff . . . Macduff is a problem in the original play because you don’t see enough of him, or early enough; he’s kind of a plot device who’s dragged in to be the big villain’s nemesis. And he’s a similar problem in the opera. I think if it had been staged sensibly$ you’d at least have been able to pick him out of the murk; I found myself thinking, Macduff must be around here somewhere . . . okay, probably that guy, because we’ve seen the babe he hangs out with and her kids up front a lot. As I have said many, many, many times$$, I’m not one of Shakespeare’s biggest fans. Cough. Cough. But . . . when Macduff hears his family is dead . . . of course he’s been set up against cold-hearted Macbeth, but even so. ‘All my pretty ones?’ will, or should, break your heart. And Verdi and Piave have given him an aria, with fresh words, that will break your heart even better.
Except that this guy . . . lovely voice, very prettily, lyrically sung, no tragedy whatsoever. He might be some perfumed lover rejected by a flirtatious damsel. Feh. Oh, and? The great confrontation with Macbeth: no man of woman can slay me! —I was not born, untimely ripped from my mother’s womb was I!
Thrown away. TOTALLY thrown away. It has all the force of hey, who ate the last doughnut? —Sorry.
I feel a little guilty for trashing this production quite so comprehensively. But two things: the staging sucks dead bears. And Netrebko wipes the frelling floor with the rest of the cast. I hold the ROH fully responsible for the first. But I hesitate about the second. Singers who can do the embodiment thing are rare. And not even every singer who can do it at all can do it for every role. And any opera is such a nest of snakes for anyone trying to put one on: how do you negotiate all the necessaries—and we haven’t touched the orchestra, which can (and sometimes does) make or break a production—and end up with something that will not only reasonably please the already opera-prone, but pull in some new audience members who will like what they see and hear well enough to try it again some time? Because opera is an expensive sport, and we need wallets.
* * *
* Except Falstaff. It’s another Cosi for me. I hate all the characters. That bounder, Falstaff. I know he’s supposed to be! I don’t care! He’s a big fat unfunny joke! I try hard not to know what’s going on so I can listen to the glorious music.
** Is there frelling training for camerapersons filming/streaming opera? You hire singers for their voices first and last and while the ‘stand on the “x”, wave your arms and sing’ style of non-acting has pretty much disappeared and you do really need someone who can not only put it over with his or her voice, but back up the voice with the rest of the body, posture, gestures—and more about that in a minute—but relentless close ups don’t do opera singers any favours. Even the ones that will pass as normal on the street tend to look like crazed gorillas on stage singing: those bonkers faces they make are about making the sound both thrilling and accurate. They can’t help it! And that’s aside from unfortunate accidents like enormous balls of snot falling out of noses and drooling saliva all down their fronts.^
^ I’m sure both the occasions I’m thinking of, famous tenors both, are available on YouTube but I’m not going to make it easy for you. My sympathies are with the poor blokes. I’ve never had anything quite that appalling happen to me live on stage, but then I’m not a famous opera singer contorting my face for the millions either. No one but a few librarians+ are going to notice or care if I spill my tea or not.
+ I first wrote ‘bored’ librarians and then I thought, No! Not bored! Please not bored! And not bored before I spilled my tea!
*** Also, producers with ideas should check that their frelling ideas match the subtitles. It was easier for producers to go doolally when no one knew what was supposed to be happening.^
^ I know a few operas well enough to not need sub/surtitles, but only a few. Carmen would probably be one of them, but we saw another perverse production, this time of Carmen, a few weeks ago, where there was so much stuff wrong I’m not going to start, but it memorably includes the battle between Don Jose and Escamillo which is supposed to be with knives, and the subtitles are up there talking about knives, with them shoving each other like boys in a playground. This throws a paying-attention opera-goer right out of the story.
& I know there’s some debate about this. But all that milk into gall stuff?^ It’s been hammered into generations of Shakespeare readers, who are a global population, that Lady Macbeth suffers from thwarted maternal urges which are probably why she’s gone regicidally round the twist. Us women, we’re so frail, we have little tiny brains and great big hormones.
^ Which isn’t in the libretto, I don’t think, at least I can’t find it: her aria about rousing him to do the deed—kill the king—is just about whether he’s ‘bold’ enough. Thank you, Verdi/Piave.
&& And speaking of production values, I couldn’t believe it when Macduff’s army picked up a lot of long poles. Nobody is going to mistake a bunch of people carrying poles for a forest on the move! It looked like Monty Python! All it needed was some galloping coconut shells!
&&& And the subtitles vs. what’s going on on stage? The banquet scene when Banquo’s ghost appears, and all that sitting at table stuff? There was no table and there were no chairs. There’s this sort of cage thing . . . and a bunch of milling-around people. Macbeth could be forgiven for being confused when his wife tells him to sit down.
% And further on Lady Macbeth, far from a strong woman, being essentially a nonperson: this popped up at the top of the page when I was googling her. It’s from Wiki, which I try to avoid using, but this is rather eye catching: ‘In the First Folio, the only source for the play, she is never referred to as Lady Macbeth, but variously as “Macbeth’s wife”, “Macbeth’s lady“, or just “lady“.’
%% So, like, next time I write a post I’ll answer some questions . . .
%%% Or curl your hair, if your hair needs curling
$ And a great big yuck for the witches’ scarlet-orange headgear, that makes them all look like John Hurt in full make up for the Elephant Man.
$$ And will doubtless say many, many, many more