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13 September, 2011

Macbeth - Great opera returns to Sydney.

Macbeth. Sydney Opera House Saturday 10th September 2011 8pm

Dear Colleagues,

This was a worthy opening of Verdi’s early opera Macbeth. The current Montreal co-production by Rene Richard Cyr (sets by Claude Goyette) is a single set of surrounding tree trunks and branches making for shadows laterally and a central focused ‘faux revolve’ with angular concretions which facilitate the main stage action. The four acts were separated by only one intermission making the feats of Elizabeth Whitehouse and Peter Coleman-Wright all the more impressive as, like the audience, they lacked the time to get over the energy and inertia of one act before starting the next.

These two veteran performers had most of the requirements needed for these demanding roles. The young Verdi was writing for singers who scarcely existed in his day and who come up but rarely even today. Ms Whitehouse sings incisively with a direct and accurate line. While she has a distinctive and pleasing timbre there were some problems with intonation at the highest register. Her acting was exemplary and it is a shame that we have heard her so seldom over the years during which she pursued a successful career overseas.

Mr Coleman-Wright started out weakly, almost as if he were ill. But he was either ‘saving’ himself or else purposely adding to the characterisation of Macbeth. While he lacks some of the heft to be ideal, he rose to considerable vocal and dramatic heights when required in this long and complex role. He well deserved the major acclaim he received from the audience.

Daniel Sumegi was a creditable Banquo, having a true basso range with a handsome almost ‘gravel’ quality worthy of the greats of his ilk. Sadly for bass fans Banquo is killed at half-time. Teresa La Rocca performed well as the handmaiden and she appeared to fill in some of the very high notes during the concerted passages.

Rosario La Spina played McDuff, the character with the great show-piece ‘Ah la paterna mano’. While he sang this flawlessly from a technical point of view, his voice seems to have developed a ‘closed’ sound rather than the thrilling ‘open’ quality of ‘ere. This might have something to do with his ever more imposing stature. With the tragic death of Salvatore Licitra this week we need to appreciate just how rare good tenors like these men are and how they all need to look after themselves.

It matters little whether the witches appear from a forest thicket, a grassy glade or a rocky outcrop. Likewise their garb could be that of a char lady or a wet suit … in this case the former. But most important is that they sing and act like witches which is exactly what they did for us on the night. I recall a production with Gwyneth Jones in San Francisco in the mid-90s in which the witches clung to ropes and moved up and down as they sang their evil predictions – and they sang no better than our excellent Sydney chorus this week.

Conductor Andrew Molino put in some quite contrasted tempi, some fast, some slow but commanding over an excellent overall orchestral performance. The gents’ chorus, while not having the demands of the witches, was equally professional as we have come to expect under the tutelage of chorus master Michael Black.

This is a rare opportunity to see Verdi’s early Shakespearian gem, an opera he reworked substantially twenty years later. Like Nabucco and I Lombardi, it has a patriotic call-to-arms, and also like his other early works there are some almost impossible vocal lines and a degree of relatively trite melodic invention amongst the lyric best of the maestro. It is said that perhaps more than any other composer Verdi learned new things with every new work during each of the seven decades in which he wrote operas. I also heard a quote from a colleague that Verdi wanted Lady Macbeth to sing, ‘not like an angel, but like a devil!’

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..