I went into Macbeth at the St James completely cold – I know Verdi’s later operas, including his later Shakespeare operas; Otello and Falstaff.  But I’ve somehow missed Macbeth, and decided to keep it that way, I guess because it’s so exciting to go into something completely fresh and new, even if it was written in 1865.

The 1965 Macbeth was a rewrite of an earlier 1847 opera…  The ’47 version was well-received and then Verdi was asked to revise it for Paris a few years later.  That didn’t happen but it started a bit of a journey for Verdi, who got deeper and deeper until the revision turned into something much bigger, with new or rewritten arias and choruses.  He even dropped the final aria from Macbeth and had him die offstage, leaving the chorus triumphant to close.

Poor old Verdi didn’t see as much success with this version as the previous one, but it’s become the preferred version since the 1960s, and for good reason.

The coolest thing about this adaptation of Macbeth is that the witches are not three, but legion – the whole female chorus sing the witches and it gives them power and influence.  No longer three weird sisters hanging out in a moor; they’re an overwhelming force, as they should be.  After all, their machinations take Macbeth and his lady down their ambitious path, ultimately to their madness and doom.  Verdi said there are only three real characters in this opera – Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the witches, and I think he succeeded in describing that.

It was strange seeing Shakespeare’s glorious tragedy distilled down to the minimal libretto of an opera…  so many lovely words lost…  but those that remain are more than adequate to the plot, and the themes are maybe even stronger for it.   And Verdi’s music is, unsurprisingly, wonderfully emotional.  And DARK.  The intensity and focus of the action and the music’s tension and colour really really work together.  Hat tip to Orchestra Wellington, skillfully conducted by Brad Cohen.

The production…..  well.  Netia Jones is a director, designer, and film-maker, and she did all three for this production.  The set was very much a blank canvas for projections, with a slanting stage reminiscent of  early surrealist black and white silent movies.  A translucent screen could be dropped or raised from the proscenium and lit for opacity, transparency, or something in between, as well as providing an extra wall for the projected images.  This allowed for marvellous flexibility, taking the set from a misty nothingness, to a marbled hall, to Birnam Wood easily.  It also allowed for projection of subtext or the supernatural…  jagged stuttering clips of a murdered Banquo, a hysterical Macbeth…  it was very cool, although I KNOW I missed bits, trying to focus on the clips and the action and the surtitles all at once, and that bugs me…  it’s definitely a challenge to provide that much detail without losing some of it in the morass.

In the second half, the sloping stage is bisected by a chasm, from whence emerge the witches’ apparitions, as well as shades of Banquo’s future descendants.  It was an AWESOME effect!  But the rest of the second half I was worrying that someone was going to fall down the crack.  Literally.  Luckily, no opera singers plunged to their doom.

The black and white blankness was repeated in costuming, until the banquet scene when bright splashes of cyan and bloody red burst out from the monochrome…  the director notes that these are the colours that blend in in 3d to create white.  Cool idea, and obviously a nod to her filmic background.  The witches start in black and white, with identical black wigs in ponytails…  later they move to all white with red staining the sleeves and hems…  I have to say I preferred the latter – the first costume made them look like they were about to waitress an Italian wedding in the 80s.  Lady Macbeth first appeared in the same outfit, which was an interesting metaphor to try unpick…  all women are witches?  All have power?  She’s just an echo or tool of their influence?  It just wasn’t clear.  I did love her power suit era later on, though…  glamourous and strong.  The men didn’t have a lot of interest in their costume…  the dripping mercury crown was excellent, but Macbeth facing his visions in a tracksuit was a little less inspiring.  At least the little future kings got snazzy red suits.

The chorus have so much wonderful music to sing, and did so brilliantly, but for the most part they stood around without much physical direction…  I think this served to highlight the leads, but was it necessary?  It made for a very static performance visually, despite all the projections and super strong leads.

Oh, the leads…  I LOVE a baritone, and Verdi made a point of writing Macbeth as a bari.  Phillip Rhodes has a wonderful voice, and the skill to use it.  I was delighted to see him gracing the stage in THE lead role; so often baris are the villains.  His Macbeth was excellently acted and sung and I applaud him.  Wade Kernot’s bass was rich and delicious, and he did a wonderful job, even after death silenced his beautiful voice.  Jared Holt and Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono were strong in support and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Fonoti-Fuimaono in future.

Amanda Echalaz as Lady Macbeth maybe started a little slow but warmed up soon and her tone, control, and versatility are quite extraordinary, even at her highest.  She has a belt on her, too, that blew my mind….  at the back of the stage, facing away, she achieve more volume and clarity than some leads will achieve front of stage and singing right at the audience.  She’s a powerhouse.  Physically, too, she’s as dominant…  sultry, domineering and determined, and finally, sliding into a fragile madness that was heartbreaking to see…  her offstage suicide was entirely believable after seeing her fall to pieces in front of us.  Just really really beautifully performed.  What a diva.

It took me a little time to assemble my thoughts on this production.  There were things that frustrated me and I had to work through that…  why did a few of the chorus just randomly run across the stage after Duncan’s murder, when the rest were so static?  Why were people smoking fake cigarettes, and couldn’t they be shown how smoking actually works?  Why are the St James seats so incredibly uncomfortable?  What did I miss in the projections when I was watching the action?  Was there any point to having everyone put on 3d glasses only to take them back off again?  It seemed just unnecessary.  And honestly, the ponytail wigs were quite dreadful.

But these are tiny niggles, and ultimately this was a dynamic and excellently performed production, with tremendously talented performers doing justice to a wonderful opera.  There is a final performance in Wellington tomorrow, and if you haven’t made it yet, I urge you to go.  For those people in Ōtautahi Christchurch, there are performances on October 20 and 22 at the Isaac.  Do it.