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Seen and Heard International Opera Review


Verdi, Macbeth: Soloists, chorus and orchestra of Frankfurt Opera, Conductor: Paolo Carignani, Director: Calixto Bieito, Sets: Alfons Flores, Costumes: Nicola Reichert, Premiere on May 22, 2005 (SM)

 


Any new production by Catalan director Calixto Bieito is guaranteed to cause a stir. His splatter versions of mainstream operatic crowd-pleasers may require a strong stomach and inevitably polarize audiences and critics alike, but they're routinely a runaway success at the box office. In one X-rated scene of his blood-and-gore version of Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio last year in Berlin, Osmin slices off a woman's nipple and forces a prostitute to drink a glass of his urine. The mass-circulation daily Bild, Germany's most widely read newspaper, fuelled the commotion by condemning the production as "filth", questioning whether public money should be used to fund such obscenities. Such self-righteous ranting by a newspaper that itself ignores the limits of good taste on a daily basis guaranteed the show was a sell-out.


And so the excited buzz of scandal was almost palpable in the foyer of Frankfurt's opera house on Sunday evening. What new shock tactics could the 42-year-old enfant terrible, a sort of Dario Argento of the opera world, come up with for one of the most bloody-thirsty of operas, Verdi's Macbeth? A quick flick through the programme before the curtain went up offered no tantalising foretaste of scandal.Instead, we gleaned that Bieito was transporting Shakespeare's drama to the modern-day world of banking and high finance. That could be a notion that is fairly hair-raising to some more conservative opera-goers, but can hardly be deemed as a source of moral outrage.Bieito turned up the unease factor by a frisson as we took our seats in the auditorium - projected on gigantic screens hanging above the stage was an endless loop of film of pigs in a pigsty, complete with squeals and grunts.

 


Just quite why such images should trigger undercurrents of nausea and dread is hard to explain. But given Bieito's penchant for stomach-churning gore, there was some justification in expecting the worst. Thankfully, as Frankfurt's GMD Paolo Carignani, a Verdi specialist, started conducting the prelude, the pigs gave way to a star-spangled sky onto which were projected advertising slogans ("Live your dreams", "Beauty is forever", "Spirit of perfection") as images of designer (Calvin Klein, Armani, DKNY) watches, shoes, jewellery floated in and out of view. Macbeth (Zeljko Lucic) wanders on stage, complete with designer suit and briefcase, picking with little appetite at a Marks and Spencer sandwich. The set, by Alfons Flores, looks if it is one of the vast conservatories on Norman Foster's Commerzbank skyscraper here in the centre of Frankfurt. The chorus of witches look like secretaries or bank employees, all carrying name-tags and takeaway cups of Starbucks coffee, and Banquo (Magnus Baldvinsson) is also a top executive on the bank's board. There are even the continuous red-ticker bands of stock prices running across the stage.


So far so good. Bieito's target seems to be today's investment bankers, the corporate fat-cats, a few of whom made up the first-night audience. Lady Macbeth (Caroline Whisnant) is also elegantly and expensively attired in a Chanel two-piece who reads Macbeth's letter as an e-mail on her laptop. But we know that something is going to go askew in the world of Frankfurt high finance when the witches sinisterly smear lipstick on their faces. Lady Macbeth seduces Duncan and then floors him by smashing a bottle of red wine across the back of his head. The king's humiliation proceeds with the removal of his clothes and is finally complete when the usurpers grope and mawl each other as Lady Macbeth, also in a state of undress, sits astraddle the twitching, fatally injured king.


At this point the first outraged boos came from the audience. But when Lady Macbeth finally finishes Duncan off by skewing a corkscrew into his jugular, sending out vaporised clouds of blood, a couple of patrons hurriedly made their noisy exits. Bieito's latest scandal was complete.

 


The trouble with shock-tactics is that they blunt very easily. And you couldn't help but get the feeling watching this production that Bieito's scandal-making is becoming a little routine. His up-dating of Macbeth certainly worked well and was dramatically cogent in the first half of the evening, but the second half more or less fizzled out as incongruities became more apparent. The battle of Birnam Wood was downgraded to a mere box-fight between rival bankers.

 

The slaughter of Banquo and of Macduff's children was suitably bloodthirsty and things even turned distinctly scatological when the witches, armed with rubber gloves, started doing unspeakable things to Macbeth's anus. Just quite what and why, I couldn't really grasp. But perhaps that speaks more of my own lack of imagination. To make sure we got the point, however, it was all underlined by the obscenities of sharp-fire images on the overhead screens. By the end of the evening, it was easy to have lost track of who had been butchered by whom and to, quite frankly, not really care less.


But from a musical point of view, there was everything to care about. There wasn't a single weak link in the mostly home-grown cast. Zeljko Lucic, in particular, was a magnificently world-weary Macbeth, with a noble, sonorous baritone. Magnus Baldvinsson was his equal in strength and clarity. Caroline Whisnant is a real find as Lady Macbeth, her dramatic soprano full and powerful, but still pleasing on the ear. Perhaps her vocal characterization lacked any real differentiation, particularly in the sleep-walking scene, as she failed to plumb the moral chasms of the character. The chorus, as usual, was excellent and the house orchestra, under GMD Carignani's acute, expert baton, in top form. An impressive four stars out of five for the music. A more middling three for the staging.


Simon Morgan


Pictures © Frankfurt Opera.




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)