Scotland in Salzburg
08/03/2011 - & August 6, 9, 12, 16, 19*, 22, 24, 2011
Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth
Zeljko LuciC (Macbeth), Tatiana Serjan (Lady Macbeth), Dmitry Belosselskiy (Banquo), Giuseppe Filianoti (Macduff), Antonio Poli (Malcolm), Anna Malavasi (chambermaid), Gianluca Buratto (doctor), Andrè Schuen (servant), Liviu Gheorghe Burz (murderer), Ion Tibrea (herald)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna State Opera Chorus, Riccardo Muti (conductor)
Peter Stein (director), Ferdinand Wögerbauer (set designer), Annamaria Heinreich (costume designer), Joachim Barth (lighting designer), Lia Tsolaki (choreographer), Heinz Wanitschek (fight director)
T. Serjan & Z. Lucic (© Silvia Lelli)
Salzburg’s new productions continue to unroll with this increasingly popular early Verdi piece, once almost absent from the repertoire. Indeed, even director Peter Stein confessed that he has long disliked the opera and only approached it partly because his Italian wife has a higher opinion of it. The unique environment of Salzburg’s Felsenreitschule (Cliff Riding School) opened up unusual creative possibilities. The back wall of the theater is the face of a sheer cliff that ascends far above the city. Tiers of carved passageways allow movement within the wall, and open passages between the audience and orchestra pit create additional performance space. The cliff’s dark shadows are appealing for works with a spooky dimension, which Macbeth’s witches, nocturnal murders, and mad scene all provide.
Stein’s effort is for the most part traditional. There is no egregiously forced political message beyond the usual axiomatic comment on the pursuit of power. No attempt is made to update the action from the Middle Ages. The major innovations arise from the director resolving what he identifies as his own pet peeves. Shakespeare’s original three witches replace Verdi’s exaggeration of them into three choruses. We still have the choruses singing, but the dramatic action falls to three (male) dancers in grotesque witch costumes that accentuate pallid female nakedness. The choruses may not have enjoyed it, but they were reduced to trees and stumps in what is meant to foreshadow Birnam Wood and its fated but improbable advance to Dunsinane Castle. The same effect appears in the scene of Banquo’s murder – here there are only four assassins, two of whom Banquo slays in allowing his son to escape, while the large chorus is disguised. It is not the most imaginative effect, but it does dispense with the logical puzzle of how a Verdian chorus of thirty cannot kill a man and his boy. More successful was Stein’s use of the Felsenreitschule’s passageways to make way for Lady Macbeth’s mad wandering in the final act. No other theater could have allowed this to happen so naturally. The passage before the orchestra pit was also a useful conduit for King Duncan’s procession – with its long pantomime – and for the sullen refugees as they flee Macbeth’s oppressive tyranny. Stein should also be credited with original touches that added to the performance. In the witches’ presentation of Banquo’s future progeny, we see the standard nondescript figures of kings processing before Macbeth, but the mirror held by Banquo’s ghost then cleverly projects images of real British monarchs – including Charles I, George III, Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth – all presumably descended from Banquo’s line via Charles I’s grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots. The large choreographed battle in the final act also suited the production’s traditional milieu. Macbeth went through multiple revisions, leaving its exact scoring the subject of perennial surprise. Stein, in consultation with conductor Riccardo Muti, not unwisely placed the often discarded ballet music as an introduction to Act III and replaced Verdi’s strident and rather incongruously upbeat later choral ending with the composer’s abbreviated original finale, preceded by Macbeth’s psychologically revealing arioso “Mal per me.”
Muti’s presence in the pit marked an historic occasion, for the 70 year-old conductor has announced that this will be his last production for Salzburg. It is for that reason that all performances were long sold out and more people than usual could be observed outside advertising for last minute tickets. Muti’s reputation with Verdi is unsurpassed among his contemporaries, and he led the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera’s chorus in a disciplined performance that captured the score with energy and verve. One could have hoped for a better cast, however. Zeljko Lucic’s powerful baritone is alas rather too rough edged to serve expertly in the high tessitura of Verdi’s signature style in the vocal range. Only some of Lucic’s piano singing in Act I and his delivery of the great regret aria “Pietà, rispetto, amore” registered improvement over his Metropolitan Opera performances of the role in the 2007-2008 season. Tatiana Serjan’s Lady Macbeth frequently succumbed to the shrill tones and awkward interpolations that the role’s difficult range can generate. The death aria and its final D-flat minor soared into what might be called an aesthetically excellent performance, but this was really the only highlight in Serjan’s singing. Both leads radiated little dramatic insight into what are, at least in Shakespeare, among the most vivid characters in literature. Dmitry Belosselskiy’s Banquo likewise sang without much verve, though the lower notes were not beyond his appealing bass voice. The best vocal performance came from rising star tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, a luxuriously good singer for the lesser role of Macduff. The character’s only aria “O figli,” an apostrophe to the bodies of his murdered children, resounded with a chilling insistence that I have never heard injected into the role.
Paul du Quenoy