Macbeth | State Theatre

Regular readers will well-know of my abiding respect and affection for almost all things Opera Australia. But even the very best, with the very best on-board, can falter.

You’d think that anything Shakespearean would be a shoo-in for an operatic makeover as, let’s face it, Shakespeare is nothing if not operatic. But while the tenor (if you’ll excuse the pun) of Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto is about right, Verdi’s music, while exquisitely beautiful and well-wrought in its own right, is way too lyrical and sweet to capture the foreboding, suspicion, suspense, tension, malevolence and high drama which pervades and informs the Bard’s brilliant play about ambition. If one is to divert one’s eyes from the surtitles, one could be forgiving Lady Mac, for example, is pining for her absent lover, rather than planning dirty deeds on his behalf.

A restaging of an Opera de Montreal production, it’s sung in Italian, with Andrea Molino at the baton. He might eke out what darkness there is from the score, but little exists beyond some promisingly thunderous phrases very early on. The rest is left to performances, set, costume and lighting.

While the title roles are touted as difficult, they would seem to me to be not as difficult as some, especially given the clear theatrical intentions of Shakespeare. Elizabeth Whitehouse has a hall-filling voice, but it doesn’t always seem effotlessly so, and can tend towards a shriller tonality. Mind you, it’s a warranted, if not recommended, quality for her Machiavellian role. And at least we have a Lady Macbeth who looks like she might be partial to shortbread, rather than the impossibly frail, waif-like actors so often cast.

But to my mind, director Sally Blackwood (restudying for Rene Richard Cyr) might’ve had her more psychotically manifest: her plotting as hand-wringingly intense as her later attempts to purge her bloodied soul and those attempts more alarming. Peter Coleman-Wright was fair enough as the weak-willed pretender Macbeth, but his voice didn’t really warm up till after interval, making for, by his standards, a somewhat pale impression. Of course, once in the zone, he exhibited the golden baritone for which he’s rightfully known. But I didn’t really get the sense of menace of which it’s well-documented he’s capable, or the charismatic presence such as was apparent in Rosario La Spina’s Macduff or, especially, Daniel Sumegi’s magisterial Banquo.

The last two were, for mine, the stars of this production, not withstanding the opening audience affording obligatory adulation to Whitehouse, particularly. I find it vaguely annoying that audiences should seem to be so predictable and sycophantic as to not show at least equal enthusiasm for those that shine in the second line, or further back. Sure, acknowledge the work that goes into difficult, principal roles, but be perspicacious and attentive to actual (as opposed to notional) performances and applaud accordingly, I say.

Claude Goyette’s set was arguably the sharpest instrument deployed: the spike-like Birnam branches looking very ominous in precisely the way Verdi’s almost incongruous music isn’t. Francois St. Aubin’s costumes are a bold, diverting hybrid of medieval and modern and also hold the promise of a dark and stormy night which never really comes upon us. I especially admired the echoes of Red Army or Third Reichian militaria in uniforms, which cast a suitably sinister shadow. But compare and contrast the opening scene, for example. Here, we’ve a triumvirate of witches looking for all the world like fashionable goths, rather than meddling mistresses of destiny.

But in, say, Polanski’s cinematic adaptation we can barely stand to look at the warty, naked creatures bring the terrible to toil to the bubbling boil. More of that gripping, spine-tingling hyperdrama, please. This is opera, isn’t it? In the latter, too, Lady Mac really gives an alarming sense of loss of sense.

It gives me no pleasure to sink a steel toe into OA, which provides so much superlative, sophisticated musical theatre in any given year. But, as sophisticated as this one also is, it misses, for mine the dramatic potential of one of the greatest of all dramas. As it is, you’d never guess it was written by Shakespeare. Despite a number of courageous individual performances and state-of-the-art chorus work, it’s just a little lack-lustrous, if still worth the price of admission.

I’d like the ambition, on and off-stage, to be all the more unbridled. And everything else, for that matter. Show me the malevolence! A long, long way from foul but, at the end of the day, I’d have to say, just fair.

Macbeth | State Theatre

The details: Macbeth plays the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, for seven more performances until October 8. Tickets on the company website.