A fatally wounded man bearing an already dead companion staggers into the comparative shelter of a concrete bunker, sets the corpse down and then promptly expires. Two dead ones before a note is sung sets the grim tone as English Touring Opera bring their production of Verdi’s Macbeth to open Perth Festival of the Arts. Macbeth is an ambitious work to take on tour being a huge sing for all involved with its larger than life arias and thrilling extended choruses all underpinned by a full-bodied orchestra. ETO’s only Scottish date for the ‘Scottish Shakespeare’ with some fine singing and deft use of touring resources pulled off a successful performance.
There is no need for a spoiler alert as many of us have studied the play at school – it’s our local Shakespeare after all - so we know how it all ends, which is unhappily for most and Verdi follows the original closely. Witches’ riddles tell Macbeth he will be king and Banquo that he will be the father of kings. The news sparks the grisly chain of events that will see King Duncan, Banquo and Macduff’s family all murdered. The intrigue in play and opera lies in the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, suddenly the powerful new royal couple but fatally burdened by their shared decisions. The witches don’t lie: Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane, and Macduff was ‘untimely ripped’ from his mother, not born of woman so Macbeth’s fate is sealed.
Designer Frankie Bradshaw’s grey brutal concrete two level fixed set with bulkhead lights was cleverly transformed to and from outdoor blasted heath to royal castle by Rory Beaton’s subtle lighting design and use of rear sliding panels. Costumes placed the production somewhere in the recent past, with the witches in leafy green gowns and white aprons carrying lamps almost like the first World War nurses who had more than their fair share of bloody sights. With soldiers in camouflage jackets but incomplete uniform carrying machine guns, and the nobles in a style of dark blue army officer dress, precise dates were less certain.
Director James Dacre brought the story to life with clarity in this slightly clunky English translation by Andrew Porter. Dacre gave the chorus plenty to do, fully integrating them into the action. Interesting touches included a strung-up Thane of Cawdor in the opening scene, and Banquo’s two assassins disabling a security camera. The apparition scene was effective with the succession of kings appearing amongst the green cloaked witches who haunted Lady Macbeth as she sleepwalked like a sinister game of follow-my-leader, psychologically pushing her over the edge.
Macbeth is a huge challenge for the chorus as the quick-change singers have to be witches, messengers, apparitions, assassins, servants, refugees and fighters. Just 20 singers threw themselves into the production with gusto, and although I was hoping for more heft from the nine witches, the combined forces delivered the huge signature choruses with spirit.
Verdi puts colossal demands on his soloists in this opera with challenging arias requiring substantial range and staminaGrant Doyle’s Macbeth and Tanya Hurst’s Lady Macbeth headed up a strong cast, Doyle’s striking baritone capturing his troubled conflicts, convincing as Duncan’s murderer, haunted in the banqueting scene and showing his sensitive side by bringing a golden glow to his lovely final aria. Taking the singing honours of the evening, Tanya Hurst gave storming performance as Lady Macbeth, her no-nonsense soprano and exemplary diction carried across the orchestra as she graced the top notes with ease, nailing her big arias and adding extra gloss to the big choruses at the end of the first two acts. A singer to watch.
Elsewhere, Andrew Slater was a solid Banquo projecting his role well, and making sure local boy Marcus as Fleance escaped his murderers. Amar Muchhala was a steady Macduff his light tenor sorrowful in his big refugee aria, but rousing in his duet with David Lynn’s Malcolm as they instruct their followers to disguise themselves with branches of Birnam Wood’s trees.
Conductor Gerry Cornelius kept stage and pit together well, setting mostly brisk tempos and drawing a spirited performance from his touring band of players. It was a rare treat to see Perth Concert Hall’s orchestra pit being used as operas in the city are few and far between. English Touring Opera’s Macbeth was a splendid start to the 2019 Perth Festival of the Arts.
For ten days every May, the city of Perth becomes the gem in Scotland’s cultural calendar. One of the oldest, continuously-running independent arts festivals in Scotland, Perth Festival of the Arts is now in its 48th year.
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