Experimental Macbeth

10 Sep

Glyndebourne’s most recent Composer in Residence, Luke Styles, has produced a further opera for them. It’s a version of Macbeth cut down to 75 minutes with the text adapted by Ted Huffman, who also directed. It was given a few performances at the end of the season before performances of Saul free to people attending that opera. They brought it to the Linbury for a single London performance on 9th September. I caught it.

It’s a difficult task to reduce even the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays to 75 minutes. And just to make things a little more challenging, they decided to set Shakespeare’s words (albeit moved around) rather than trying to create their own text. This is a very brave decision. The only composer I can think of who has successfully set Shakespeare’s dialogue is Britten in his Midsummer Night’s Dream and it’s worth remembering that that was through very carefully selected text by Pears, who would have a feel for the vocal possibilities.

Huffman and Styles decided that they would eschew the supernatural altogether – no witches, no Banquo’s ghost, no Birnam Wood marching to Dunsinane. Lady Macbeth loses her sleep-walking scene and, apparently, doesn’t die. So far as I could tell, Macbeth wins – he certainly seemed to deliver Macduff’s final words. I don’t necessarily object to this. All stories involve choices as to what happens next and, at a time when tyranny appears to be increasingly victorious and atrocities happen at a pace that my generation at least, thought was of the past, a victorious Macbeth is not unthinkable. But doesn’t this also give you a bit more licence with the story itself and with the text?

The aim of the Glyndebourne scheme is, presumably, to encourage experiment rather than to create a masterpiece and I’d like to treat this in that spirit. In his programme note, Styles suggests that he and Huffman, may try to expand it to a full evening. If they do, then perhaps a few friendly suggestions may assist.

1. Do you really need to use Shakespeare’s words so slavishly, particularly when they are being projected behind the singers? First, syntax is dense and often difficult to follow.  Secondly, the vocabulary can be obscure. I doubt, for example, that many people in the audience know what a limbeck is (I need to look it up) or that a gin is a trap – this distracts attention. More seriously, these words weren’t written for singing: they are there for actors to take up and play with. When Shakespeare did write words to be set to music, the technique is very different – the lines are shorter, the expression less complex. By setting this text you impose a straitjacket on the text and the way it is expressed. I couldn’t find a single memorable phrase or musical expression which amplified or improved on the text. I think they need to find a different way of telling the story.

2. Do you really need an all-male cast? I know Shakespeare did, but that was the convention of the time and I suspect that at least some of the voices were trebles. I don’t object, per se, to a tenor Lady Macbeth – Britten’s Madwoman is a marvellous example of how intense female passion can be conveyed by this voice – but I’m not sure that Styles yet has the skill or the assurance to make the most of the opportunities that this creates. The relatively limited vocal palette gets a bit monotonous.

3. Verdi had the right idea when he cut out all the Rosses, Lennoxes etc. It’s a very fine production in the theatre that enables you to work out which is which and, honestly, it doesn’t matter. Either cut them or give them more to do. And costume them so that they look different.

4. Bits of the text seemed unnecessary. To take an easy example, you don’t need Macbeth to go through the business of asking whether the murderers are outside and then calling them in. The early scenes struck me as being full of exegesis that wasn’t always necessary – do we need to know all about Norway and the evil MacDonald? It took up too many of the 75 minutes.

5. It is seriously worth thinking about the opportunities that the operatic form gives in terms of opportunities for extended arias, duets and ensembles to provide characterisation, to create tension, to move the plot along and also give a bit of variation. Here we simply had the characters singing the dialogue one after the other and at what felt like a uniform pace, with little variation and little to suggest the different emotions or the dynamics of a conversation. It felt dutiful, earth-bound, boring.

The part I found most enjoyable was Styles’s marvellously assured orchestration. He found colours which suggested emotions and created tension and atmosphere. The woodwinds surrounding Lady Macbeth created a sense of love, there was a lovely, almost salon-ish introduction to the banquet scene and his use of percussion is fabulously good. I got lots of pleasure listening to that. This is very special. Some of the best moments were those where the singers shut up and allowed the music to speak: I remember a passage before the murder where Macbeth is left standing on the stage, thinking – the music told you quite a lot about what was going on in his mind. If only there had been more interesting vocal lines.

It was well enough done. Huffman directed clearly and intelligently, save for the fact that it was impossible to tell who most of the minor characters were and I was frankly confused by the end, because I know what happens in the original. Jeremy Bines conducted a group of the LPO well and, as I’ve suggested, got the colours and textures outstandingly well. Ed Ballard made a strong impression as Macbeth even if you wished for more opportunities for him to delve into the character. Aidan Coburn was an impressive Lady Macbeth even though the role disappears after the banquet scene – but there was absolutely no sense of sexual chemistry between the two – a decision, or embarrassment at having two blokes playing man and wife? There’s a very good Britten tenor voice there.

Alessandro Fisher made a clear Banquo and Andrew Davies did a very good double act as the Porter and Lady Macduff – some lovely acting there. As I’ve suggested, I didn’t find it easy to work out who the others were.

So it’s an experiment. I think it needs a lot of work if this is really to succeed for an audience and I’d be tempted to start again from scratch with a new text. It felt a lot longer than its 75 minutes. I wonder if Styles is really an operatic composer – it was the skill with orchestral sounds that I’ll take away from this evening and which make me want to hear more of his work.

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