Back to David Poutney’s Macbeth, and I’ll start off by saying something nice. I really liked the sickly radioactive-green slime in place of blood. It’s startling, it’s unearthly, it’s viscerally disgusting in a way that stage blood usually isn’t. (And there’s Shakespearean precedent for using the blood’s color as a metaphor: “his [Duncan’s] silver skin laced with his golden blood”.) The green is unfortunately less effective when shining on the typewriter after Banquo’s murder (see my previous entry). Green slime works as blood, but the color itself has too many positive and soothing connotations to be effective as a general symbol of death and horror.
Red was reserved for the witches. You’d think this would be effective, but it’s not. The witches in the Washington National Opera production (directed by Paolo Micciche) I saw last spring were also color-coordinated; they were all in white, and, like these red witches, some of them carried hula hoops. The white gave them an unearthly apparitional look, and they reminded me of Goya’s Caprichos. The red chorus, I’m sorry to say, kept reminding me of the ladies of the Red Hat Society, who are frightening in a very different way. I did like the one who kept turning the crank on her manual eggbeater, thereby adding an eerie touch to the orchestration, one that Verdi had sadly neglected. It reminded me of hearing Henze’s Fifth Symphony many years ago; as I was reading down the list of instruments, I came upon "bullwhip". I think it got cracking in the third movement. One witch in particular, wearing a going-to-church-extravagant red chapeau and strolling around with a red walking stick, made me think, The Red Brigade of Women present . . . Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience! You see how the mind wanders when the staging is ineffective. The sisters were indeed weird, but they were weird in the same way as the rest of the staging. It’s important that they be strange in a different way. Otherwise they seem like more of the same rather than an eruption from either another world or the subconscious.
I will mildly disagree with those who were horrified that the Opera bought this production, meaning we’re going to have to see it again. I thought the sets were OK. It’s what happens on and around them that is a mess, and that can be changed. There’s the big box with one or two glass sides that gets moved around and represents various things, from Macbeth’s castle to his isolation, and it’s set under a curved dome with a big cracked hole in it. It’s banal to put it into words – see, the natural order has been damaged! – but visually it’s quite effective, though perhaps not enough so to last for the entire opera.
Just about every scene cries out for change. Let me use the sleepwalking scene as an example. Jeremy Galyon, valiantly playing the doctor, is led in blindfolded by Elza van den Heever’s admirably committed Lady-in-Waiting. I assume the blindfold is because Lady Macbeth is sequestered and he’s not supposed to know where she is. But she’s not supposed to be that gaga. They have her already acting crazy by the banquet scene, so her attempts to force Macbeth to behave normally when he sees Banquo’s ghost no longer make any sense. The Macbeths present a façade of normal kingship that hides an increasingly sinister world of fear and surveillance, an effect that is completely lost when you turn Lady Macbeth into the madwoman in the attic. So she does her handwashing thing and the doctor takes notes. The only reason the doctor should be taking notes in this scene is so that he can be shown stopping his note-taking when he realizes what exactly is making Lady Macbeth feel so guilty. In this production, it’s probably needless to say, he writes the whole time, which makes even less sense than you might think because the Lady-in-waiting angrily snatches the paper from him when he finishes and either tears it or hides it away in her pocket (I forget which and it probably doesn't really matter). Maybe it’s meant to be a prescription, because she then produces a huge hypodermic needle, and the two of them run off stage, presumably to give Lady Macbeth the injection that causes her death. It’s hard to tell because they aren’t shown actually doing anything with the needle. But the death of Lady Macbeth is rumored to be at her own hand – again, under the façade of a normal, natural occurrence, bloodthirsty ambition causes its own destruction, a point that is lost completely if she dies through a lethal injection given by her servants.
I know lots of people found Hampson’s Macbeth riveting. I thought he initially was disengaged and not nuanced enough, which surprised me in an artist noted for his commitment and intelligence. He has a beautiful voice, and it’s one that carries especially well in the War Memorial Opera House. He has great stage presence: if he were a scholarly book, he would not only be regularly referred to as a tome, but inevitably as a magisterial tome. So I might just have heard him on an off night, possibly for both of us. At one point I thought, there’s no erotic charge between him and Lady Macbeth; you don’t get the feeling that their ambition and their guilty complicity excite them in any way. Right after that we got to see a flash of him humping her during Banquo’s murder, but that’s the sort of thing that is better conveyed in nuanced gestures during the performance rather than in an over-obvious tableau.
Georgina Lukacs as Lady Macbeth seemed like a wildly variable performer. I gather she was much better the night I heard her than in earlier performances. I sometimes wonder how much what I expect from voices has been affected by beginning to listen seriously in the early white-sound days of the first generation of HIP singers (long before they were called that). So after this performance I listened to recordings of Verrett and Rysanek in the role. Nope, it’s not me. Lukacs has a wildly undulating wobble, which she managed to control better in some of the later scenes. Just as I wish opera directors didn’t know about La Mere Coupable, knowledge of which has coarsened and distorted many a staging of Nozze di Figaro, I also wish they didn’t know about Verdi’s letter stating that Lady Macbeth needs an ugly voice. Whatever his motive in writing that, it’s clear what he meant: he wanted a striking and unusual type of character, from a singer who could give an actual performance, one that went beyond making the pretty canary-bird sounds. But too much that is inartistic is covered over by the whole “ugly voice” excuse.
Even the orchestra disappointed me. When I went to the WNO production last spring it was mainly because that happened to be what they were doing when I was in town (I was more focused on Titus at the Shakespeare Theater and on hearing Racette in Jenufa later that week), and I walked in wondering if I should have gone to the Nationals game instead. (If you’ve been to RFK Stadium, or seen the Nationals play lately, this is a pretty big indication that I was not that excited about Macbeth.) I walked out so glad that I had gone, and thinking that I had really underestimated the fascinations and effectiveness of the score. I took that to be because I hadn’t heard the piece in a while, but now I’m giving lots of credit to the magic stick of conductor Renato Palumbo. Massimo Zanetti conducted the San Francisco performance. We started off with a slack, enervated prologue, and I hoped for improvement that never came. There was no tension or forward drive, and the weird parts sounded pretty much like all the rest. Zanetti did have great conductor hair, though, a poufy backward sweep of silvery gray that bobbed up and down as his arms waved energetically about. I should point out that from my seat I normally can barely see the conductor.
So I walked out of this performance with renewed retrospective admiration for the one I heard last spring. Eventually the BART train showed up, and as usual I had to move at least once because someone was blasting her iPod at an ever-increasing volume. It amazes me when I think how much reading I used to get done on the trains, before the invasion of the inadequately silenced electronic devices. Since it was a short train, there was little choice where to go. I ended up in a seat near two spherical sisters. As teenage drunks go they were fairly innocuous, and I would salute them for not driving in that condition except I suspect it was just because they didn’t have a car. I was only about a stop and a half away from home by this time so I didn’t bother moving again (where would I go anyway on a short train?) when the younger one started vomiting, choking out apologies while splattering the window near her and the floor under her seat. “It’s OK, bitch,” her sister kept murmuring. “Bitch, it’s OK. We’ve all been there.” That might have been the truest performance I heard all night.