22 JUNE 2002, Page 58


Macbeth (Royal Opera House) Sweeney Todd (Sadler's Wells)

Tense moments

Michael Tanner

Macbeth is the first of Verdi's operas in which his characteristic urgency and pace are allied to a subject which is wholly serious, or at least which we can take wholly seriously. All the previous nine operas have plenty of things to invigorate and to be enjoyed, but their energy is hardly ever allied to adequate dramatic situations, so that there is only a kind of abstract pleasure to be got from them, together with a concentration on mere vocal athleticism. Macbeth has all the verve of its predecessors, but from the opening notes of the Prelude we are promised a drama that will engage us at a level that won't make the Shakespearean connection seem an embarrassment, and, though Verdi's Macbeth is very different from Shakespeare's, it is a noble, worthy adaptation of it.

Alas, the first thing, and really the only big thing, that is wrong with the Royal Opera's new production is the conducting of Simone Young. It is not uniformly dreadful, as Der fliegende Hollander was three years ago, but it is untrustworthy, so that even when things were going perfectly well I was tensed for the next sag in the drama, and all too often it came. The idiom of Verdi conducting, the capacity to spring rhythm, to set a tempo which has the musical drama bouncing along, the thrust to make cabalettas seem necessary expressions of resolution rather than comic appendices to reflective arias, is lacking throughout. Young's best efforts are in the great choral ensembles. The Covent Garden chorus was on terrific form, and produced great walls of sound. But since Macbeth is so much concerned with the relationships between meditation and action, and action and regret, and the ways in which people feel trapped once they have performed the first in a sequence of what increasingly comes to seem an inevitable chain of ever more appalling actions, it is essential that the conducting, the pacing of the whole, should convey to us a precise sense of the momentum of events. Without that, a cast far more distinguished than the one at Covent Garden will fail to make a strong impression.

The cast is, in fact, good but needs more help than it gets. Verdi leaves the characterisation of the Macbeths' marriage vague, and so, up to a point, did Shakespeare. Director and singers need to work on it; deciding, for example, how large an element the erotic still plays in their lives. This pair have a double bed to begin with, twin beds later on. but that shows little. I have seen performances in which they are all over one another, and that is effective. Anthony Michaels-Moore is a fine singer, who relies for effects more on the colouring of his voice than on its volume, which is never more than moderate. He can project a very forceful personality, as he has as Scarpia, but he hasn't yet — he may well go on to — learned to show a character collapsing, and here Verdi doesn't give a great deal of help.

Phylhda Lloyd's production is often quite helpful, but she makes less than she might of this centrepiece of the opera, giving the limelight to Lady Macbeth, with her grand and progressively tragic brindisi, wonderfully projected by Maria Guleghina. She has recently been a disappointing performer, and she was weak in Act I, with sketchy coloratura, so that the stupendous first aria went for little. She, and everyone else, improved dramatically in Act II, and she remained the chief source of interest for the rest of the evening, with a most moving sleep-walking scene, sung on a thin but sustained thread of tone.

The production takes place in a claustrophobic box designed by Anthony Ward, within which a brass cage works overtime as a symbol of Macbeth's entrapment. The witches are almost omnipresent in the first two acts, even lending a hand with moving the scenery, otherwise busying themselves with pointing out to the characters what they should do next. That is quite annoy

ing, as the director seems to have felt herself after a certain point. The high spot is certainly the apparition of the kings in Act III, a succession of golden figures on horseback, both beautiful and terribly menacing. This is a production which can easily be worked on, should be, and which might become something very fine without all that many changes. The vital thing is to find a conductor, preferably from the Italian provinces, who has Verdi in his or her blood.

I was keenly looking forward to Opera North's season at Sadler's Wells, with their brilliant production of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, which continues until 22 June. It is still very much worth seeing, but I was disappointed at what has happened to it in the transfer to a larger theatre than the Grand Theatre in Leeds. Amplification, which was unreliable there, is no better, often worse, in London. The tendency to belt everything out is now almost unrestrained. And worst of all, Beverley Klein's magnificent, definitive portrayal of Mrs Lovett has declined into coarse self-parody. In Leeds she was insinuating and complex; in London every gesture and word is determinedly larger than life, with commensurately diminishing returns. That means that the incipient pretentiousness of the work itself is emphasised. Even so, it remains a superb evening (or afternoon), and retains the gruesome olfactory effects which make the second half such a queasy experience.