Their standard ever on the rise, Melbourne Opera assembles a uniformly splendid company of singers to bring out the compelling potency of Verdi’s Macbeth.
So good is the full company of Macbeth that each aria, duet and chorus is somehow better than the last, all backed by a sterling performance from the Melbourne Opera Orchestra with conductor Greg Hocking at the podium.
In a rare non-Wagnerian season outside the Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne Opera blesses the larger stage and auditorium of Her Majesty’s Theatre with this grand new production. Uncluttered by speakers and lighting bars, the art deco proscenium arch of “The Maj” is seen at its best; even the rarely seen metallic grill of the orchestra pit looks appealing. More importantly, Her Majesty’s provides a wonderfully warm acoustic, with vocal and instrumental music sounding deliciously crisp and clear.
Having primarily performed English translations, Melbourne Opera takes another step forward with Macbethbeing sung in Italian. Surtitles are readily visible on a number of well-placed flat screen monitors.
Choral singing is a feature of Verdi’s score for Macbeth, and chorus master Raymond Lawrence draws a superb performance from a suitably sizable contingent of the Melbourne Opera Chorus. The stage picture is rounded out by a children’s chorus along with various actors and supernumeraries.
Director Bruce Beresford respects the work by using the original setting of 11th century Scotland, placing the focus squarely and wisely on the music, characters and drama.
In another judicious choice, Beresford’s direction is neatly understated throughout, with sheer vocal power and expression conveying the passion and mania all the more impactfully.
Given Beresford’s background in film, his lack of cinematic style in Macbeth is somewhat jarring, with momentum lost during each pause between scenes. A sense of flow is finally achieved in act four, in which the throne symbolically stays centre stage for the final three scenes.
Were there possibly to be a newcomer to opera in the audience, the experience of watching Game of Throneswould be preparation enough to enjoy Macbeth, in which gnawing political ambition yields diabolical schemes for power. A throne is actually one of the very few pieces of set furniture in Greg Carroll’s scenic design, which centres upon towering constructs that convey black rock or castle ramparts. Lighting (designed by Rob Sowinski) plays on textured surfaces of the settings to striking, highly atmospheric effect.
Combined with his dark settings, Carroll’s costumes achieve an almost grey scale effect evoking the mood of a black and white movie. Into this neutral space comes rich scarlet and purple, giving a hint of regal opulence when Macbeth accedes the throne.
The throngs of witches look all the more wicked sporting wild and woolly wigs styled by Madison Levett. Artfully positioned around a bubbling cauldron, the witches come to further life with the choreography of movement director Lisa Petty. Likewise, the soldiers perform rousing sword play on the battlefield under the supervision of fight coordinator Charlie Mycroft.
A clear star attraction on the Melbourne stage, soprano Helena Dix brings her stunning vocal prowess to the rather iconic role of Lady Macbeth. In line with Beresford’s understated direction, Dix maintains a poised, focused presence. In another meticulously calibrated performance, Dix begins in a measured, reflective manner, drawing the audience ever closer with her subtle descent into madness.
In a role with almost as many facets as Violetta, Dix transitions seamlessly from the simmering ambition of the letter scene to the vibrant brindisi “Si colmi il calice” and on to the hypnotic high point, “Una macchia è qui tuttora!”. The pleasure of enjoying Dix on stage stems from the seemingly effortless flow of her high notes; the work is simply there to be savoured, with none of the mechanics on display.
In a continuation of the compelling form shown recently in Das Rheingold, baritone Simon Meadows gives another impactful performance as Macbeth. Meadows has an approachable everyman look, giving little hint of the desperation and insanity to come. His rich, gently burnished baritone in excellent form, Meadows sings with polished musicality and finely detailed expression. At the evening’s climax, Meadows raises the stakes once more with his heartfelt final aria “Pietà, rispetto, amore.”
Strong when working individually, together, Meadows’ Macbeth is Sweeney Todd to Dix’s Mrs Lovett. Their duet work, particularly in act three, benefits from a clear mutual artistic respect and a well-balanced blend of complementary vocals.
As Macbeth’s ill-fated compatriot Banquo, power bass Eddie Muliaumaseali’i deftly brings out the noble tragedy of the character. With mention made again to Beresford’s direction, Muliaumaseali’i channels all of his performance into vocal expression and is all the more commanding for it.
As the gallant Macduff, tenor Samuel Sakker Macduff finally, and memorably, comes to the fore in the final scene, thrilling the audience with a distinctly heroic performance of “Ah, la paterna mano.”
The quality of performance on show in Macbeth extends to featured roles. Eleanor Greenwood’s clarion mezzo-soprano rings out in the thrilling act one climax “Schiudi, inferno.” She later provides strong support, along with mellifluent bass Alex Pokryshevsky as the Doctor, in the sleepwalking scene. Tenor Robert Macfarlane brings a truly lovely vocal tone to the cameo role of future sovereign Malcolm.
Opera lovers of Melbourne must see Macbeth. Future engagements of Melbourne Opera remain highly anticipated.
Macbeth will be live streamed on 26 May 2021. For details, click here.
The Macbeth program can be read online.
Photos: Robin Halls