Stage Door Review
Tuesday, May 2, 2023
by Giuseppe Verdi, directed by David McVicar
Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto
April 28-May 20, 2023
Macbeth: “Pietà , rispetto, amore,
Conforto a’dì cadenti
Ah! non spargeran d’un fiore
La tua canuta età.”
The Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Verdi’s Macbeth is one that opera-goers will be pleased to see again and again. Director Sir David McVicar has not imposed some peculiar concept on the opera that will make the production a trial to live with. Rather McVicar has looked into the opera with more insight than do many directors of Shakespeare’s play. He has coped with the challenges of Verdi’s version of the story while emphasizing its virtues to create a production that is both gripping and thought-provoking. The music-making of the COC Orchestra under Speranza Scappucci is simply thrilling.
Toronto last saw Verdi’s Macbeth in a visually uninteresting and conceptually confused production in 2005. McVicar’s production allows for multiple interpretations but is intriguing, not confounding. Costume designer Moritz Junge has moved the period from some time in the 11th century to the mid-19th century when Verdi wrote the opera. The action takes place inside John Macfarlane’s set that we first see as a roofless, ruined church. While the two side walls remain in place, the back wall is replaced to change the church to a banqueting hall or removed and relit by David Finn to represent a city street. The only pity is that every set change requires a curtain drop and a pause in the action.
The main difficulty for any director of this opera is that Verdi’s librettist Francesco Maria Piave changes Shakespeare’s three Witches into a chorus of witches. Except for its echo of the three Fates of Greek mythology, there is no reason that there be more than one witch or spirit as is the case in Akira Kurosawa’s version of Macbeth in his film Throne of Blood (1957).
McVicar’s solution, aided by the Victorian setting, is to imagine the witches as a group of madwomen who seem to have found refuge in a decrepit church. The ruined church itself works as a symbol of the demise of any moral authority in Scotland. Embodying the witches’ influence are three children – two girls and a boy.
Children as symbols of evil rather than innocence has been a popular trope since at least William March’s novel The Bad Seed (1954) or John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos (1957). McVicar has these silent children, rather than the witches themselves, interact with Macbeth even when Macbeth is away from the coven. Since the children are unseen by others McVicar is able to avoid the clichéd directorial choice that the witches control the action. They don’t. McVicar’s children seem to represent what Macbeth wants to believe rather than what is actually true. They are also central to a theme in Shakespeare’s play of adults’ desire to destroy children by representing its equally infernal opposite of children destroying adults.
McVicar reinforces this theme of parents and children by having Banquo’s silent son Fleance appear in as many scenes as possible. It is from Fleance that the line of future kings of Scotland will spring. McVicar stages Macbeth’s second visit to the witches by leaving open the possibility that the visit and what Macbeth sees is all a dream. In specific it is a dream prompted in this production by Macbeth’s memory of the child who died in infancy he had with Lady Macbeth. (This idea answers one of the persistent questions about Shakespeare’s play, namely “Who does Lady Macbeth refer to in her lines, ‘I have given suck, and know / How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me’”?)
McVicar draws nuanced acting from nearly all the cast of a kind one only sees occasionally in stage plays. Chief among these is baritone Quinn Kelsey as Macbeth himself. Kelsey has become an audience favourite in Toronto since his great performances in the title role of Rigoletto in 2011, as Sancho Panza in Don Quichotte in 2014 and especially as Germont in La Traviata in 2015. Kelsey has a beautifully rounded, infinitely expressive voice which he uses to bring out the complexity of his characters. I can’t remember when I have seen such a complex portrayal of Macbeth, whether in the opera or in Shakespeare’s play.
In Macbeth’s meditations on the good news he receives in the presence of the witches and later in his aria “Mi si affaccia un pugnal!” Kelsey uses his fantastic ability to colour his voice to suggest through its delicacy a fundamental weakness underlying Macbeth’s previously unsought quest for power. Kelsey’s voice is so rich that even when Macbeth thinks of or commands evil deeds it is as if Macbeth is effortfully forcing his mind to follow an unholy line of thought. Macbeth, whether in the theatre or in opera, is too often played as unscrupulously ambitious. But that is far too shallow a view and is not what the text or Verdi’s music depicts. Kelsey makes Macbeth’s final aria “Pietà, rispetto, amore” clearsighted and deeply moving as Macbeth realizes that even if he wins the battle he will never win his people’s respect.
A second audience favourite, Sonia Radvanovsky, was to have sung Lady Macbeth, but she had to withdraw for undisclosed personal reasons. Replacing her (April 28, 30, May 6, and 12) is Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska and (May 14, 17, and 20) Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska. I saw Pendatchanska on the April 30 when it was announced that she was “indisposed”. I can, therefore, not fully critique her singing except to say that she clearly reserved her vocal power for her high notes and runs and impressed with the frequent low notes Verdi assigns her.
Unfortunately, her indisposition also encompassed her acting and she repeatedly used a single gesture, striking her palm with a fist, to indicate Lad Macbeth’s determination. Once the sleepwalking scene “Una macchia è qui tuttora!” arrived, Pendatchanska was finally able to throw herself into the role and project remarkably high pianissimi that could be heard throughout the auditorium.
COC audiences have heard Turkish bass Önay Köse before as Lodovico in Verdi’s Otello in 2019. Now they have the chance to hear his enormous resonant voice in the key role of Banquo in Macbeth. In fact, his voice is so large it makes sense that he would need an entire chorus of assassins to silence it. Yet, Köse’s voice is also agile and expressive so that his concern over Macbeth’s state of mind is always clear, especially in his moving final aria “Come dal ciel precipita”.
Verdi gives Macduff only one aria, “Ah, la paterna mano”, but Canadian tenor and Ensemble Studio graduate Matthew Cairns makes it a showstopper. Cairns’s passion and golden tone make Macduff appear as the first ray of goodness that can light up the atmosphere of gloom.
Although her role is very small as Lady Macbeth’s Lady-in-waiting, Canadian soprano Tracy Cantin is part of Verdi’s numerous ensembles and often it is her ringing high note that soars over all the others at the conclusion of choral interludes.
Scholars have often remarked that great as Shakespeare is, his plays show little concern for the feelings of the common people. Coriolanus refers to them as the “the mutable, rank-scented many”. Verdi, however, is always keenly aware of sufferings of the common people, living as he did in an ununified Italy subject to the Austrian Empire. He revised Macbeth (1847) in 1865, the version now used, six years before Italy became independent in 1871.
Thus, unlike Shakespeare, Verdi’s opera does not focus only on the villainous Macbeths but also on how their deeds affect the people as a whole. This leads to one of the main glories of the opera, its interludes for full, mixed chorus. In this production these choruses are beautifully sung and incredibly powerful. The most complex is the first expressing the reaction of the Scottish people to news of the murder of Duncan “Schiudi, inferno, la bocca ed inghiotti”, where the sorrowing, wrathful multitudes call for God to punish the murderer while the Macbeths sing along, aware that the entire country would turn on them if their secret were known. Verdi makes the chorus’s final utterance after Macbeth’s death, “Salve, or re!”, sound less like a hymn of victory than a martial warning to whoever would dare tyrannize over the people again.
I was lucky enough to have a seat in the front row for the performance which meant that I could see Italian conductor Speranza Scappucci up close. Her rapport with the COC Orchestra is so strong is almost palpable. Scappucci seems to galvanize the orchestra with the same great passion and precision with which she views the score. No wonder that at the curtain call she applauded them and they applauded her. The combination of McVicar’s direction, Scappucci’s conducting and Quinn Kelsey’s profound interpretation of the title role make this Macbeth a tremendous experience.
☞ Addendum: I attended the matinee performance of Macbeth with the intention of seeing Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska as Lady Macbeth. As it happened Monastyrska had to cancel because of laryngitis and was replaced by Canadian Tracy Cantin, who had been singing Lady Macbeth’s Lady-in-Waiting. The Lady-in-Waiting would now be played by Charlotte Siegel.
Cantin was in glorious voice, glowing richer and brighter the higher it rises – a voice perfect for the flights of coloratura Verdi gives the singer as well as its lyric passages. Her stunning account of Lady Macbeth’s first aria was greeted with such loud and long applause it was clear that any disappointment at not hearing Monastyrska had evaporated. We all wanted to hear Cantin.
When I saw Alexandrina Pendatchanska, she was said to be “indisposed”. For her this included making only a minimum effort at acting until the sleepwalking scene. Cantin can not only sing but act, and it was a relief to see the significant part of David McVicar’s direction that had gone missing under Pendatchanska. Most notably McVicar’s Macbeths are in love and share a hug after Macbeth tells his wife about his second visit to the witches.
What I suspected about Pendatchanska’s sleepwalking scene was confirmed when I saw Cantin’s. Pendatchanska had done her own version of the scene, with melodramatic eye-rolling and grovelling on the ground, that had absolutely nothing to do with McVicar. Cantin’s subtle actions showed that McVicar followed the lead of the music, its softness suggesting a mind sadly reduced to only one thought that would soon decline to nothing.
Cantin sang and acted with such poise and authority that I hope we will hear more of her in future. Looking at the COC website I see that Cantin is now listed for the performances on May 17 and 20. For those about to see her, prepare to be wowed.
Photos: Quinn Keley as Macbeth with Önay Köse as Banquo (standing right with bloodied head) and ensemble; Quinn Kelsey as Macbeth (kneeling front right), Matthew Cairns as Macduff (standing clad in tartan behind Kelsey) and ensemble; Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Lady Macbeth and Quinn Kelsey as Macbeth. © 2023 Michael Cooper. Tracy Cantin © Dean Arts.
For tickets visit www.coc.ca.