So there’s King Duncan, sitting contentedly on his throne, neither a very good nor very bad king, really, but there by the grace of God and a compliant people. Imagine Kevin Rudd, if you will. Macbeth — that is, ostensibly, Julia Gillard — serves loyally; smart and ambitious, certainly, but patient and not particularly courageous. That is until the androgynous witches — faceless men, all — decide the reign of Duncan (Rudd, I mean; try and keep up) is finished, conjuring his demise and pushing the flame-haired Macbeth to succeed. Reluctant at first, the faithful deputy needs a ruthless push from lover Lady Macbeth (come on, Tim Mathieson can’t be as guileless as he looks). Together they conspire to knife the leader and anyone else that gets in their way.
May Gillard’s reign be longer and less bloody than Shakespeare’s malefactor, for her sake. But the analogy correlates, at least for the first two acts. You may find it helpful to see your way through an opera so unrelentingly dark you have to squint to make it out.
It’s not just the music, a heavy Verdi score free of the memorable arias and rousing choruses that usually offer levity. Or Shakespeare’s story, a murderous morality tale of political and personal betrayal unbridled by romantic flourish or redeeming character. But the production itself, new to Opera Australia, seems almost determined to lurk in the shadows at a distance from the audience.
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This is a well-travelled work: an Italian opera of an English play about a Scottish monarchy, in a new production for Australia via a French-Canadian company. The co-production with Opéra de Montréal premiered two years ago, arriving in Melbourne last week before shipping to Sydney in September. To continue the domestic politics theme, I’m reminded of a past campaign slogan from weathered Nationals senator Ron Boswell to describe the work: it’s not pretty, but it’s pretty effective.
Director René Richard Cyr, leading a mostly Canadian creative team, has stripped back Verdi’s early-career effort to its roots, or at least the bare branches that frame the stage as part of Claude Goyette’s bleak and brooding set design. The stage revolves to offer variance in terrain, but we remain trapped in the dark heath, never entering — at least visually — the castle as Verdi intended.
There’s a sense of being outside the drama: players dart off stage to complete their dastardly duties; we hear murders taking place in the wings but only see the lifeless corpses brought back into view. The design and staging capture a mood, certainly, but leave the audience in the cheap seats.
The performances are all taut, with robust accompaniment from Orchestra Victoria under the baton of baby-faced Australian conductor Simon Hewett. Michael Lewis’ rich baritone fills out the title role, and Jacqueline Mabardi is quite chillingly sadistic with the sort of dirty soprano voice Lady Macbeth requires. They’re demanding roles, both, and seem perfectly cast here.
Kiwi Jud Arthur was a faultless Banquo (Wayne Swan, perhaps, though that hardly bodes well) and the mellifluous tenor tones of Rosario La Spina really cut through as Macduff. He was a particular, if too brief, highlight.
Macbeth seems to be where opera companies draw the line on Giuseppe. The well-worn classics all came later — Rigoletto, Il trovator, La traviata, Don Carlos, Aida, etc — while those written before (with the possible exception of the reputation-building Nabucco) are rarely performed. Even Macbeth may be reserved for the purists. They will celebrate this new production — efficiently staged and well executed — but it’s not likely to win many more fans.
Even in Canberra circles.
The details: Macbeth is at the State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre for four more performances until May 10. It moves to Sydney for eight performances from September 10. Tickets on the company website.