Friday, January 20, 2017

Macbeth from Congo

The late great Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan once said that even in a small theatre with a small orchestra, Verdi’s music “works”, which presumably means that the power of the music comes across.

I attended last night’s Vancouver Opera presentation of Macbeth with a great deal of trepidation, mainly because I had read that the score had been “reworked” for a mere 12 musicians by Fabrizio Cassol. I came away from the performance convinced that this production of Macbeth absolutely “works” as a theatre piece, if not exactly as “grand” opera.

I was thankful that the performance was held at the acoustically acceptable Vancouver Playhouse, and not in that travesty of a hall called the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. All of the voices were clearly heard, and the power of the music came through much more effectively in the smaller venue.

The set was incredibly simple. The chorus was seated (mostly) on stage left, and acts as a sort of Greek chorus commenting on the unfolding drama. The instrumentalists and the conductor were seated on stage right, and not in an orchestra pit, which also contributed to the immediacy of the sound. All of the action took place in an elevated area center stage, the size of a boxing ring, with black and white painted squares on the floor like a chessboard. Changing scenery was very effectively and evocatively achieved by back projections.

Rather than Scotland, the opera had been relocated to the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, with Macbeth being an ambitious Congolese warlord. Against this backdrop the director was able to address the many atrocities committed today on the African continent, exploitation of the land as well as the people, intimidation and raping of women, ethnic conflicts, and child soldiers. The performance, which lasted only one hour and forty minutes, necessitated streamlining of the story, which made the dramatic impact of the story much more powerful.

None of these things would matter if the music making were not up to standards, which it was. This reworking of Verdi’s score did not destroy the music, and the singing of the chorus as well as all the principals were Italianate, strong and beautiful. Nobulumko Mngxekeza, as Lady Macbeth, possesses a voice that soars over the most dramatic musical outbursts. And Owen Metsileng strikes a perfect balance between Macbeth's cowardice and ambition. Performing this work with such minimal forces did not diminish the power of the music or the message of the drama.

At a time when so many iconoclasts seek to, in their works, insert their dose of political correctness or political agenda, it is refreshing to see a production such as this, which gives us a new and different glimpse of this all too familiar tale, and yet retaining all the essence of Verdi’s masterpiece. In the end, it is not about whether the opera is set in Scotland or Africa, but how the artists were able to use this timeless tale to highlight Shakespeare’s insight into the human heart.

Patrick May
January 20, 2017

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