THIS is a big year for Shakespeare – and many of the 400th anniversary celebrations involve the Scottish Play, a timely choice.
Personally we’re rather in danger of being Macbethed-out with another still to come at Shakespeare’s Globe, but first it’s Verdi and the very different stagings possible at Iford’s magical but tiny cloister and Dorset Opera Festival’s big Coade Hall stage at Bryanston with large choral resources.
Iford’s Macbeth a few weeks back was well sung but disappointingly directed and what should have been the cloister’s strength – its intimacy and intensity – was lost. A lack of chemistry between the Macbeths added to the problems.
Dorset’s Macbeth was brilliantly sung, with a fine simple set and mostly highly effective lighting. And there was a palpable charge between the central characters, sung by Mark S Doss, who is now a firm favourite with DOF audiences, and the great soprano Lee Bissett.
Doss was convincing from the start, a man who is secure in his military role but rattled by the witches’ prophesy and haunted by what he has done after the assassination of Duncan and even more after the murder of Banquo. By emphasising his internal torments – writ large on the baritone’s expressive face – there was no need for Banquo’s ghost at the banquet. We knew it was his own demons leering at him through the eerie red light of hell.
Bissett drew on her huge experience as well as her gorgeous voice to make this a Lady Macbeth of epic proportions. Instantly aware of the promise of the witches’ words, she was a steely backbone to her worried husband before the murder of the king and a perfectly poised hostess for the banquet scene. So much strength and composure had to crack, as it does in the second act.
I can’t imagine hearing Verdi’s exciting interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragedy better sung or characterised than it was here, with strong support from the Macduff of young tenor Leonardo Capalbo (another firm DOF favourite after his star turn in L’Elisir d’Amore last year).
Among many intelligent and insightful ideas of the director, I particularly liked the inclusion of Macduff’s family in the big banqueting scene. In most productions, of both play and opera, we don’t see Lady Macduff until the murder scene. Seeing them as a family, and his evident love of them, hugely intensifies the horror of the massacre to come.
The Dorset Opera chorus is one of the jewels of this rural festival. The singers have a two week residency rehearsing for the two operas (this year’s other work was Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin – see review below).
But the sheer size of the chorus was also a problem at some points in Macbeth – too many witches, too many murderers.
“When shall we three meet again?” loses some of its power when it’s more like 33, but they sang beautifully, and the effect was certainly weird, just less frightening than it should have been.
It is hard to imagine how Banquo would not have heard the 20-plus assassins stalking him, or how Fleance could have escaped so many armed thugs. The lighting was also a let-down in this scene – Banquo is singing of darkness and shadows and it was all a bit too light.
However much we understand the need to give the chorus plenty to do, there are hard artistic choices that sometimes have to be made and this was the case with Banquo’s murder.
The chorus was wonderfully used in the banqueting scene, which so often is sparsely populated, detracting from the pomp and power of the Macbeths’ doomed coronation. The effect of the king’s ‘fits’ is intensified when seen on the faces of a large and increasingly frightened gathering.
This was a powerfully sung and acted Macbeth, a timeless tragedy of ruthless ambition and the tricks that Fate plays on its victims.
Pictured: Mark S Doss as Maceth; Lee Bissett as Lady Macbeth.