In writing Macbeth, his first Shakespearean opera, Verdi was determined to deliver “something out of the ordinary”. The most striking element is the portrayal of the central murderous couple, where Shakespeare’s ability to plumb the darkest psychological depths meets Verdi’s force and fire head-on – a challenge for opera companies that want to cast the roles today.
This latest revival of the Royal Opera’s 2002 production by Phyllida Lloyd brings together an interesting pair. Liudmyla Monastyrska’s Lady Macbeth has a formidable power source at its centre. The young Ukrainian soprano’s debut as Aida earlier in the year left open whether she would have the spirit for Lady Macbeth – in terms of acting she does not go far beyond chapter one – entitled “Semaphore” – of the eastern European drama handbook, but in her voice the character comes blazingly alive. It is a fearless display that combines power, range, a palette with many tones of evil, and a cast-iron technique. Only her cloudy Italian and the improbably dainty way she skips through some of the coloratura take away from a first-rate performance, all sung by a voice shining in its prime.
In choosing Simon Keenlyside for Macbeth, the staging keeps up its strangely unbroken line of English-speaking baritones in the title role. Keenlyside’s singing has grown in recent years. From the lithe, lyric voice of his youth, he has bulked up to provide the vocal muscle that Verdi’s baritone roles demand and this performance never felt short of healthy, red-blooded, outgoing singing. What it missed was the personal touch that made Keenlyside’s Papageno and Billy Budd, among others, so unforgettable. The more he pushes himself to become the extravert Verdi baritone, the less time he seems to have to look inward to the characters’ souls.
Alongside this central pair, Raymond Aceto’s gritty Banquo and Dimitri Pittas’s bright-voiced Macduff each made a passing impression, and Antonio Pappano roused the orchestra to much robust, highly energised playing. The good parts, though, failed to add up to a convincing whole. Lloyd’s odd production does not establish any kind of atmosphere and is content simply to offer a jumble of quirky symbolic images – not at all what Verdi meant when he said “something out of the ordinary”.