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Review by Jenni Balow
What folly! If only Macbeth had shrugged aside the dubious prediction made by a cackling group of witch-hags that he could be King of Scotland, a tragedy might have been averted, but Shakespeare didn’t see it that way.
Neither did Guiseppe Verdi, the Italian composer who had heard the tale, and reckoned “this tragedy is one of the greatest creations of man”, as he set about expressing the dark horror of a murderous pursuit for power, through music.
He proudly premiered his work in Florence in 1847, where it was well received and later adapted, before being almost forgotten for more than a century. Now it has been revived, particularly successfully by the English Touring Opera this season.
So the Duchy Opera’s timing is perfect, because this passionate, brooding piece is being talked about again, and here, with a stunning international cast of supreme singers, director Angela Agutter Thomas has set out a high class production.
The stage is bleakly bare, the king’s pennant flutters despondently, the only spectacle comes from the voices of the principal singers, and a retinue of turbaned courtiers, soldiers in feathered tam-o-shanters, tartan townsfolk, cut-throats and refugees, whose fine individual voices harmonised with energy.
On the first night, Armenian Arshak Kuzikyan, who also sang the title role with ETO in Cambridge, tugged at our hearts, both vulnerable and magnificent alongside the formidable Sera Baines, whose searing soprano voice equalled her ambitions for her king.
She is sure and driven, he is at first reluctant to bloody his hands, and soon it will be too late for guilt and anguish.
Australian tenor Thomas Birch thrilled as a powerful-lunged Macduff, complimenting Ed Hawkins playing Banquo, also fresh from the ETO production. He is a musician who came late to singing. Glad that he did.
And then we have the talented Toshi Ogita from Japan, a third year scholar at Truro Cathedral, playing Malcolm, with a fine future ahead of him, and local soprano Jessica Chantler, superbly singing in her first principal role.
There is only one quibble, I really disliked the fake horror masks worn by the 16 witches. Surely wild hair and clever make-up would have been more appropriate? Disconcertingly, their cackles quickly became the sweetest of voices, in three-part harmony.
On the other hand, the ghostly procession of Banquo’s royal descendants wearing classical simple white masks, exactly matched the tone of the production.
The key to the success of the piece was, of course, the deft musical direction of Timothy Dean, with his fine orchestra, chorus master Clive Ellison, hand sewn costumes by Sheila Collins, Wendy and Derek Elliott, and lighting by Ben Blaber.
Incidentally, real history tells us that King Macbeth of Scotland reigned from 1040 to 1057, after his troops killed King Duncan in battle.