Pacific Opera Victoria’s decision to engage Morris Panych and Ken Macdonald to direct and design Verdi’s “Macbeth” shows great artistic courage. Panych, one of Canada’s greatest and most innovative living theatre practitioners, has gone on record stating how boring he finds opera to be. He and his partner Macdonald create works that subvert theatrical norms. Their production of “Macbeth,” running at The Royal Theatre until 14 October, succeeds splendidly. The results will appeal to more restless theatre-lovers, while still appealing to conservative connaisseurs of opera.
Verdi’s Macbeth takes Shakespeare’s version of the story, already one of his shortest, and removes more material. The result is a knife-thrust of a libretto. Following the prophecies of a group of witches, Macbeth and his wife seek the throne of Scotland. Classic usurpers, they murder all obstacles, establishing a reign of terror as King and Queen. A handful of Scots that have evaded the Macbeths’ wraith plan a revolt, returning peace (however temporary) to Scotland. The libretto drips blood, and teems with madness and the supernatural.
Panych and Macdonald’s plan to bring life to the opera succeeds most brilliantly in the set, stage and costume design. In fact, the set becomes another character – a star of the show. From the opening moments, a daring tone is set: a scrim (an opaque floor-to-ceiling curtain on which images and film can be projected) shows credits for the opera, while the orchestra plays the ouverture from the pit. Panych and Macdonald set the entire design theme – deconstructed tartan – in these opening minutes. Extending the weave imagery, bands of colour extend accross the stage, and from floor to ceiling. The furniture also echoes the theme, and our charcters dress in shades of black, complete with kilts and boots. Meanwhile, performers frequently appear behind the scrim, in ghostly fashion. One feels as if the play takes place within the demented weave of the witches’ sorcery.
Gregory Dahl as Macbeth, and Lyne Fortin as Lady Macbeth, fully inhabit their roles, and the musical demands of each. Verdi created roles that sit far from the velvet requirements of much of Italian Opera. Their Macbeth and Lady M are martial, driven and haunted, and Dahl and Fortin give us blitzkrieg renditions of “Vienni t’affretta,” “Or tutti sorgete” and “Fatal mia donna.” By contrast, Robert Clark’s Macduff, singing of love for his murdered family in “Ah, la paterna mano,” gives the opera a humane touch.
The chorus (including the witches) offers some of the stronger moments of the opera, and a few of the weakest. In the opening scene of the brilliantly-performed last-act, “Patria Oppressa,” a group of refugees, barefoot in simple clothing sing with lovely vulnerability. The voices are balanced and restrained. Panych has them stand perfectly still, mourning their condition. The result is a moment of sheer beauty. However, throughout much of the rest of the opera, the chorus was ragged or difficult to hear. I imagine that the chorus will further settle into their voices as the show continues its run.
Pacific Opera Victoria continues to provide tremendous resources to deepen our appreciation of opera in general, Verdi’s “Macbeth” and the context in which the piece takes place, and in which Verdi composed. Before and after seeing the performance, it is well worth visiting the POV website for links to essays, videos, and the libretto among other things. The “lobby lecture” was engaging, witty and informative – it really is a must, and occurs prior to each performance at 7pm. Also, the University of Victoria Libraries continues its collaboration with POV with an exhibit of scores, editions and adaptations of Macbeth. Professor Janelle Jenstad curates the exhibit, and is on hand at the lobby lecture to offer a fascinating history of Macbeth. M
By Brent Schaus