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Updated: May 30, 2021

Piave & Maffei after Shakespeare, Verdi

English Touring Opera

Opera House, Buxton, touring to York, Sheffield, Durham and others

22 Mar 2019; 2hr 25min, inc 20min interval

Grant Doyle as Macbeth in Engish Touring Opera's production
Grant Doyle as Macbeth. All pics: Richard Hubert Smith

The English text of Verdi’s Macbeth would be a gift to any exam-swotter looking for a Passnotes-style summary of the plot. It leaves out all subsidiary stuff, focuses on Macbeth and (even more) Lady Macbeth, tells you what each is thinking - even when Shakespeare doesn’t - and throws in a chorus or two to express the background concepts of a benighted Scotland under Macbeth’s rule and the patriotic spirit of those who finally defeated him.

And some of the best quotes are still there, sounding at least something like the original.

We have translator Andrew Porter to thank for that. Occasionally he lapses into cod-Jacobean language (addressing the dagger in Macbeth’s vision as ‘thou’, for instance), but generally you have the feeling of what a 19th-century Italian operatic writing team made of this, as they would of any other source.

English Touring Opera is quite brave in using English for foreign-language opera these days, when translated surtitles can supply the meaning of any libretto, whatever its original tongue. They even display the English text as it is sung, which affords us the pleasant game of spotting when the singers make tiny departures from the official version. But I have no problem with that.

What I do have a problem with is the modern-dress staging chosen by director James Dacre and designer Frankie Bradshaw. No doubt lounge suits, and trousers with military-ish seam stripes, are relatively cheap to hire from theatrical costumiers, but it all gets a bit incongruous when Macbeth clearly calls for ‘my buckler, sword and dagger’, only to be given a pistol and nothing else.

The single set itself is a kind of concrete bunker, but we never find out why any part of the action is going on there. As it happens, it’s built very much like a Jacobean theatre, with an ‘inner chamber’ behind the main stage area and a gallery above for special moments – which may have been intentional, or may not.

The witches are important in Verdi’s version – they’re a female chorus and should be just as spookily evil as Shakespeare made them. Here they first appear as nuns in nursing aprons, rifling the wounded for their possessions – not the kind of conduct you associate with nuns, and the animal entrails they apparently find are not what you would expect either. Was it just the word ‘sisters’ that provoked that? And the military fatigues sported by the chorus at other times would be fair enough, if they didn’t keep waving their AK-47s around as if auditioning for Dad’s Army.

Having said all that, the musical qualities of this ETO production are very high: the chorus sounds terrific in Buxton’s Opera House, the words are almost always crystal clear and the two main characters are well cast. Conductor Gerry Cornelius gets the maximum from a smallish orchestra and realises many of Verdi’s textures beautifully.

Grant Doyle, as Macbeth, has a very big voice and uses it powerfully. Does his characterisation develop in the course of the story, as it should? Perhaps not much, but Madeleine Pierard as Lady Macbeth is not just the dominant personality from the start, but the dominant voice in every way. Verdi wrote some great, histrionic material for her role, and she goes to town on it.


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