An event


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

15 thoughts on “An event”

  1. As a teenager, I went to the Opera in the Zoo in Cincinnati with my dad. When the soprano hit high notes, the sea lions voiced “ork! ork! ork!” One tenor reared back to really cut loose one afternoon and inhaled a bird feather. He lived.

  2. I LOVE when you rant or rave about opera. As someone who makes a chunk of her living by playing in an opera orchestra, it’s good to know there are people out there who are so passionate about it. Verdi is fantastic, isn’t he? I’m sorry the staging and filming was so disappointing, though. That really is too bad.

  3. Netrebko is marvellous!

    The demands on opera stars today are as intense as on Broadway musical stars. But when they’ve got it, they are magnificent and you fall into the story, weeping. So sorry this wasn’t one of those productions!

  4. OK, where does this idea come from that Lady Macbeth is barren?

    ‘I have given suck, and know/ how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me’.

    Yes, Macbeth ‘has no children’. Given infant mortality rates at the time this is not a contradiction, even if Lady M hasn’t had a previous husband.

    It’s fifty years since I did this play at school, and the lines are still stuck in my head.

    1. Since I’m not sure when I’m going to get to answering comments again thought I’d better at least acknowledge . . . yes, you’re right, and apologies for carelessness. This is permanent problem with blog-writing, you haven’t time to be careful enough. I was led astray by my poor memory in this case because it’s so often *taught* (as it was to me several times in several different classes: the curse of the English major) as Lady Macbeth being ‘barren’ rather than having no live children . . . and to some extent the result is the same: she’s an evil fruit loop because she doesn’t have living children.

  5. C Dobbs- that’s HILARIOUS!

    I agree about Lady Mac- strong enough to nag, but not to face consequences of her ambitions. I was colossally bored throughout much of Shakespeare through high school. Which, I know, is a heresy of epic proportions, but sue me. I was too busy reading McKinley.

  6. I only found you online again tonight, so a belated welcome back from the still all-too-frozen north. Your Macbeth sounds like a production better heard than seen; that way you wouldn’t have had to be annoyed by the staging. (Which is why I didn’t go see the Met’s Tristan with Nine Stemme last year; the description of the production was a turn-off, and the pictures on radio were better.) I remember a Carmen I saw years ago in which Carmen appeared in the last act wearing the sort of white dress that suggested she and Escamillo might be going to tie the knot after the bullfight. Carmen! Where do these ideas come from?

  7. I cannot tell you how excited I am that you are writing in your blog again. I have been an avid reader of your books for the past ten years, thank you for your blog posts they make my day! You’re the best Robin! Your book Pegasus actually really got me into reading and it quickly became my favorite novel followed by Deerskin and Sunshine. Have an absolutely wonderful day!

  8. I’m absolutely agree with you. Production is awful,in my county opera lovers calls It’s “Rezhopera” (It is formed from three words, that are translated as Director, Opera and, sorry, “Ass”, means opera production with bad taste and platitudes).I’ts really sad for me, because I love Lucic-Netrebko couple Macbeth with all my heart. Lucic-Macbeth is a great actor and wonderful singer, but HERE he was washy and boring. Netrebko and D’Arcangelo were good.
    Dinner Party was awful! Not singing, you can treat Anna Netrebko differently, but to say that she can not sing, it would be strange. And the statement, the very fact that the performers go into some kind of square construction like a cage, and around them people circumnavigate in red cloaks, where Netrebko sings, holding in his hand absolutely no royal unattractive gold cup, and Lučić is forced to wait for his party walk on the “stage” back and forth without any emotion on his part ( ГUntil he saw Banquo… How and why this is permitted in a modern opera production, in one of the most prestigious theaters, I absolutely can not understand.
    Best scene of production – when the witches lead to Macbeth and his wife, their (unborn? deceased?) children and this moment is comparable in strength to the “Tango Roxana” from the “Moulin Rouge”. But if after the “Tango Roxana” Moulin Rouge began to get out of the marshy pit of vulgarity and bad taste, then Macbeth never got out of the waterfall of boredom.

    Sorry for my english, but can’t remain silent!

    1. THANK YOU for writing!!! Your English is perfectly understandable, it doesn’t have to be perfectly perfect!! 🙂

  9. I was not fond of Macbeth until I saw the recent film with Michael Fassbender. Suddenly, I understood the text. And Lady Macbeth has so much more to do. Could not recommend it more highly.

  10. I think the whole Lady Macbeth ‘being strong’ comes from the feminazi idea that you have to have women be ‘exactly like men’ with ‘no traditional feminity’ and thus her ‘unsexing’ and suggesting/encouraging the murder of the king is suppose to show she is strong. Which I’ve called out as nonsense since HS. I believe it was part of notion that ‘men do the evil things because they are led astray by women’ -so Macbeth is suppose to be a poor guy led astray by the female ‘witches’ and then his female ‘wife’ . I will say one good thing about the play Macbeth -its thanks to its convoluted way of getting around the ‘no man birthed of a woman’ -that Tolkien wrote the scene in Return of the King where Eowyn and Merry kill the Ringwraith king.

    1. Except Eowyn doesn’t. Merry does. One of the great betrayals of my childhood. I know, I know. But that’s how it happened to me.

  11. Whatever was blocking me from this post is gone now. Yay! I can see the footnoted glory. 🙂

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