Sleep No More: Macbeth at the Gran Teatre del Liceu

Verdi – Macbeth

Macbeth – Luca Salsi
Banco – Erwin Schrott
Lady Macbeth – Sondra Radvanovsky
Dama – Gemma Coma-Alabert
Macduff – Francesco Pio Galasso
Malcolm – Fabian Lara
Medico – David Lagares
Sicario – David Lagares

Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu, Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu / Josep Pons.
Stage director – Jaume Plensa.

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Catalonia.  Thursday, February 16th, 2023.

This was, rather unbelievably so given how often I visit the Catalan capital, my first visit to the Gran Teatre del Liceu since 2018.  While of course we have been living through a plague in the intervening years, the main reason for this is that, during the years of the previous artistic directorship, the programming was rather staid.  Fortunately, things are much improved under the new artistic director, Victor Garcia de Gomar, with this season seeing an innovative staging of Tosca by rising star Rafael Villalobos, and Calixto Bieito’s superb Poppea from Zurich.  The signs are positive that this great house is regaining its former lustre.

Photo: © David Ruano

This new staging of Macbeth was confided to the famed Catalan sculptor and operatic set designer, Jaume Plensa.  Getting Plensa to do his first ever stage direction of an opera for the Liceu was a bit of a scoop for the house, and his name was prominently displayed alongside Verdi’s in the marketing for the show.  The theatre was absolutely packed tonight with an extremely enthusiastic audience.  Plensa may be new to the role of stage director, but he is no operatic novice.  He also brings to his staging a life-long love of Shakespeare.  What distinguishes Plensa’s work as a sculptor is his use of alphabetic letters as part of his structures – and this was also the case for his costumes tonight.  Given his origins as an artist, it is perhaps unsurprising that his staging consists of so many memorable stage pictures, based on exploiting three basic colours – black, red, and white.  The stage is bare for much of the evening, just a few props, such as a structure of a man’s head upon which Macbeth and Banco alight to watch the witches (and where Banco is also murdered).  As Duncan is murdered, Plensa gives us the image of several sets of doors, perhaps suggesting that Macbeth had several options other than killing Duncan, and this was a deliberate choice on his behalf.  The visuals are undeniably striking.

Photo: © David Ruano

Yet Plensa’s inexperience as a stage director was also apparent in the personenregie.  Far too often, characters resorted to stock operatic gestures – an outstretched hand, the principals parked at the front for the ensembles, and Macbeth spent much of the evening falling to his knees.  The chorus was marched on and off in a block, with much of their movement consisting of them perambulating in formation around the stage.  The bare stage also had significant acoustic effects, giving the singers nothing to aid their projection – the chorus was often drowned out by the orchestra from my seat in the middle of the Platea and the principals had to rely on being at the very front of the stage to give us maximum audibility.  Rather than have the chorus act out the witches, Plensa used a group of danseuses, choreographed by Antonio Ruz, to move around the stage while the chorus was parked still.  In the ballet music they indulged in some headbanging, synchronized hair waving, combined with some acrobatics that most certainly looked like they were going for a place in the Catalan delegation for the upcoming Paris Olympics. 

Photo: © David Ruano

Ultimately, Plensa’s staging looks good, set in a futuristic fantasy kingdom, and in that respect has much to admire.  But it also felt unfinished: the personenregie, the lack of being able to use the principals to create real flesh and blood characters, rather than stock operatic personalities, and the acoustic issues of the stage setting, all of these diminished its impact.  It’s certainly a more than creditable first operatic staging – I’ve certainly seen much worse – but it did feel like a work in progress.

Photo: © David Ruano

Musically, this impression was also apparent in Josep Pons’ conducting.  He obtained superb playing from the house orchestra – the sheer wealth of orchestral colour he found in the score was striking, whether in the moonlight string lines of ‘la luce langue’, or the precision of attack that reflected the murderous knife.  Pons also brought out the long lyric lines and elegance of phrasing, superimposed over a constantly evolving rhythmic framework, that this work needs.  And yet it felt that something was lacking.  His tempi lacked somewhat in swagger – this is a work that has so many terrifically rousing moments, yet ‘la patria tradita’ felt earthbound and, as we started getting to the end of the evening, tempi started to feel saggy.  Still, the quality of the playing was undeniable as was the discipline and unanimity of Pablo Assante’s chorus – the tuning and ensemble were excellent.

Photo: © David Ruano

It did feel a rather tepid evening until Sondra Radvanovsky’s Lady Macbeth appeared.  When she dispatched her ‘ambizioso spirto’ into the audience, one could not help but sit up and take note.  She made her ‘Vieni t’affretta!’ a lot more psychologically insightful than we often hear, using the dynamics to make Lady Macbeth sound almost reasonable and hopeful, someone with an eye on upward mobility rather than just pure evil.  This made her journey through the evening particularly compelling.  Throughout, Radvanovsky sang with staggering breath control, easy agility, and made use of a juicy chest register.  We got both verses of ‘Or tutti sorgete’, but sadly the second wasn’t ornamented. She gave us a genuine trill in ‘Si colmi il calice’ turning the corners with ease, and in her sleepwalking scene let out her closing high D-flat on a hushed pianissimo that still managed to carry through the house.

Photo: © David Ruano

As with Radvanovsky, Luca Salsi sang Macbeth with full attention to the text, digging deep to find meaning.  It felt that Salsi grew into the role as the evening progressed, not uncommon for a first night and not helped by having to rely on those stock operatic gestures.  His baritone is in excellent shape, even from top to bottom, with a bright penetrating top, and never any sense of hectoring.  The highlight of his assumption was his ‘Pietà, rispetto, amore’ which he sang with an impeccable legato, long lines, and coloured the text, using it as the starting point to his imaginative use of dynamics. 

Photo: © David Ruano

Singing Macduff was Francesco Pio Galasso, a new name to me.  His is a bright tenor, of sunny Italianate tone.  It’s a slender voice, that carries well.  The top does seem to require a bit of heavy lifting to get there, seemingly emerging through determination rather than radiant ease, but the clarity of his diction gave pleasure.  Erwin Schrott sang Banco’s aria with dignity, even if his bass-baritone has dried out a bit now.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t quite optimal in pitching when he announced Duncan’s demise, but on the whole his singing was agreeable.  In the supporting roles, Gemma Coma-Alabert capped the ensembles with ease on high, while Fabián Lara brought a masculine tenor with an easy top to the role of Malcolm – indeed, one could imagine him as optimal casting for Macduff. 

Photo: © David Ruano

On the whole, this was a rather mixed evening.  The staging was statuesque, the conducting had moments of sagginess, and some of the singing took a little while to take wing.  At the same time, we were given a number of intriguing stage pictures and the staging definitely looked good.  Radvanovsky was a magnificent Lady Macbeth and Salsi certainly delivered when it mattered.  I left the house satisfied, but with a feeling of a work in progress.  The audience gave both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth enormous and show-stopping ovations as the evening progressed, and also gave Plensa a warm welcome at his curtain call. 

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