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Review: Macbeth the opera is somber and satisfying

There is a reason Shakespeare’s Macbeth is called a tragedy – its full of murder, madness, and malevolence. With its supernatural elements and a host of characters both good and evil it’s the kind of tale that would make a great melodramatic opera. In 1847, Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi did just that, and now, NZ Opera has produced a very good modern take on this famous story. 

The set is somewhat sparse and cavernous with a raked floor that spreads out to ceiling high walls on which are projected images that depict location, mood, and sometimes, ghostly images depicting the mental state of characters on stage. There are moments when images are also projected onto a thin screen in front of the stage but we can still see action behind.

It’s a clever and flexible design that feels very modern while also evoking a sense of timelessness. 

The modern elements continue with the costumes – black skirts and blouses for the women, black suits for most of the men. These provide a monochromatic sombreness to the first act which indicates quite clearly this is not a happy story.

The opera follows Shakespeare’s play to some degree, but it whips through the plot points, and then lingers on the interpersonal moments. It is a story that focusses on the people themselves, their manipulations, desires, and conflicts. 

We don’t see the killings, as they happen off stage, but that doesn’t dilute the brutality. This is particularly true after Duncan is murdered. Macbeth returns to the stage with his hands and forearms covered in bright red blood. That monochromatic styling I mentioned means the blood stands out, a vividly brutal image that is impossible to ignore, and not easily forgotten.

Phillip Rhodes is the perfect embodiment of Macbeth with his bearded good looks and commanding stage presence. On first appearance, he looks like a hipster boardroom executive full of confident swagger. It isn’t long however before he begins a descent into anguish and paranoia as he transforms bit by bit into a mentally tortured tyrant in black combat gear. Rhodes does this perfectly and his presence on stage is impossible to ignore. 

Matching him in power and at times unhinged malevolence is Amanda Echalaz as his Lady, and then Queen. In the beginning she is as monochrome as the rest, yet she is clearly harbouring a deeply macabre desire to empower her husband and ultimately herself. She goads, she encourages, she berates. As Queen, she is all charm, and largesse. Yet behind the facade, her equilibrium and sanity are starting to crack. She cannot avoid the agonising truth of what she has done, and indeed the bright crimson of her figure hugging dress wraps her up metaphorically in the blood she has spilled. 

With a gorgeous voice, Echalaz evokes each of the stages of Lady Macbeth’s life so well, and in particular her descent into madness. 

Together, the Macbeths are a ruthless couple. Their insane desire for power sets them off on a tragic course they cannot stop, even though they are tortured by what they have done. Despite feeling deep remorse and anguish, both of them realise they must carry on the carnage. It is a fascinating thing to watch. 

Macbeth is a new opera to me and therefore the music was unfamiliar but satisfying. The arias were sung incredibly well by the leads, and also the New Zealand Opera Chorus who provided beautifully harmonious and powerful moments. The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of Brad Cohen provided a glorious and emotional interpretation of Verdi’s music. 

What surprised me though was that there was no truly memorable or ‘hummable’ aria as there is in some of Verdi’s other operas such as ‘La donna è mobilefrom Rigoletto or ‘Libiamo ne’ lieti’ from La Traviata. 

This however is not a problem since Macbeth is a much darker story. It is also a stunning production that looks amazing, and is performed beautifully by a very talented group of artists.

Note – photo credit Grant Triplow

MACBETH

AUCKLAND – Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre

21, 23 September 2022, 7.30pm, 25 October, 2.30pm

WELLINGTON – St James, Wellington

5, 7 October 2022, 7.30pm, 9 October, 2.30pm

CHRISTCHURCH – Isaac Theatre Royal

20, 22 October 2022, 7.30 pm

Click here for more information and bookings

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