Giuseppe Verdi • Macbeth
Macbeth—perhaps the most sought-after ticket at the Festival this year for being the first-ever Muti-Stein collaboration and the last Muti opera performance at the Festival—was, in all truth, not high on my list of priorities for performances to see in Salzburg. When I had to choose between a concert with Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Fourth Symphony, a Mozart Piano Concerto with Maria João Pires, and a few other little goodies (conducted by Kent Nagano) and Macbeth, I hesitated at first, but really knew all along that I had to follow my heart and take personal interest over prestigiousness. I admire Klaus Amadeus Hartmann’s too rarely heard music, and I very much cherish Pires’ playing (last heard live in Beethoven’s Second Concerto). With Verdi, however, I have some (documented) problems. A production by Peter Stein (“I don’t do ‘interpretation”) is not at all my idea of what theater should be. And I find it difficult to develop more than reserved respect for the art of Riccardo Muti.
That latter stance is not arrogance, nor an affected attempt to avoid or chide the consensus*, nor in any way an ideological issue (all of which can and do affect reviews, no matter who the critic). In Munich I have the opportunity to hear Muti reasonably regularly, and the concerts are usually very fine, but there’s not yet been a moment of ‘Wow’. And Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at last year’s Salzburg Festival (review here) was by some measure the biggest disappointment of all the concerts I had seen; thick, homogenous, pasteurized, tedious, boring, and with a staging (nominally Dieter Dorn, but Muti demands total blandness and usually interferes with the director’s work) deserving of the same adjectives. Even believing enthusiastic reports from recent Chicago concert performances of Otello (a different thing from conducting from the pit with Muti, and the CSO being a snappier of band than the Vienna Phil), I couldn’t muster enthusiasm for this production. It was meant for a different kind of audience and I knew it perfectly well.
This prelude to the review is by way of fairness, because the cause for complaining about the production (and there will be some complaining) is—essentially—my having had the last-minute opportunity to slip into the second performance of this hopelessly sold-out Macbeth last Saturday, August 6th. Had I spent money on a ticket that night, it would have been one for the (not sold-out) “Liederabend/Mahler Scenes” concert next door, with András Schiff performing Schubert (D 894) and in the second half the piano version of Das Lied von der Erde with Piotr Beczala and Christian Gerhaher (returning to Das Lied after protracted illness) …and (according to hearsay critical consensus) gotten what I wanted and more. Instead I sat in the damp Felsenreitschule, anticipating Macbeth as little more than a visual spectacle, and half hoping for an insightful musical direction.
During the four hours and fifteen minutes (including two intermissions) of the uncut (!) Macbeth, I experienced a disappointment that was very considerably mitigated by my low expectations. A Canadian and a German colleague, inexplicably going into this Macbeth with considerably higher expectations, were appalled during both intermissions and afterwards, almost relishing in their disapproval. I found myself more bemused, able to enjoy the very competent singing, and the strangely casual-flexible music-making that Muti prescribed the orchestra, including some genuinely soft and quiet parts and delicate woodwinds from the Vienna Philharmonic. It’s all about expectation-management. The production, meanwhile, went from cute (the chorus rushing about in tree-costumes that made them look like Ewoks on the run) to incredibly literal (three pale and naked witches around a steaming cauldron) to pathetic. It went something like this:
Positioning. Hand gesture. Sing. Exit stage right. In various combinations, for 155 minutes net. Protagonists in colorful costumes and chain mail strutting about with realistic swords and deliberate theatrical (read: stiff, figurative) acting. Enter the knights (chorus!), ten in number. Stop at mid stage, sing required bit, remain standing, turn on the heel, exit stage right. Soloist(s) walk up to spot marked X, wide stance, place sword in front of themselves, and go at it, straight at the audience, come aria or duet. Use young boy (Banquo’s child) as you would a stage prop. Drag it around, send it off stage, have it brought back. Be sure it does not make any movement not indicated by the singer (Dmitry Belosselskiy) manhandling it. Introduce a costume parade with a crowned, white-bearded king in the lead, solemnly walking between orchestra seats and stage from left-to-right; later the same thing right-to-left but with the procession of the oh-so-suffering masses, downtrodden men and women with big, vacuous-horrified eyes, tipple-tapple with desolate children carefully sprinkled among them, wearing sparkling clean, home-knitted poverty-wear, and easily recyclable for next year’s Nabucco.
Peter Stein’s medieval times are hygienic meticulously clean and neat, aseptic even in its depiction of depravity. Every scene looks as though designed to look great on a still photograph ten years from now in the commemorative 10 year retrospective coffee-table book. “Ah, yes! Muti and Stein Macbeth. I was there! What an occasion!” And for all the money spent on sticking five dozen men into chainmail, and carrying lit torches about, Stein couldn’t be bothered to fill the beakers during the dinner scene. Filling empty beakers with nonexistent liquids from empty vessels is the kind of amateurish, ridiculous-looking prop-sloppiness that I hate with a passion. Never mind that even the best actors hold and handle empty cups very differently than full ones, it contributed to that ultimately maddening bloodlessness of the production. A production with clatter-a-dang swordfights that no local amateur theater company could have been proud of. A production where no wine can ever spill, where the poor have perfect teeth, death smells like lilacs and Kensington Gore, where every smile or grimace is fake, and where bronze-creamed maids (the, acting-wise, massively untalented Anna Malavasi) give lessons in phony stage behavior, with the shallowest type of replica-emotions on ostentatious display. The post-collapse ballet scene was kept moving by hoisting a bunch of adorable children onto stage who hopped about, doing the ring-a-ring-o’ roses, and eventually hopped off again. The prelude to Act III was where Muti and Stein dumped the unnecessarily uncut Paris ballet music, and was illuminated (literally, but not metaphorically speaking) by lighting so random and even pathetic (a little red from the left, a little white from the center; thrice repeated), it seemed an exercise in the absurd. Appearing ghosts came from holes in the ground via creaky elevation that occasionally got stuck. Spooky theater action circa 1893.
All this suggests a lack of detail and intelligent blocking that made this Peter Stein production a failure even on his terms. The dramatic highlight turned out the perfect coincidence of real thunder outside the Felsenreitschule and the murder scene on the inside, and involuntarily humor was inserted courtesy of a melodically ringing cell phone right at Macbeth's exclamation of "Qual concento!..." - "What music!"
The singers’ collective lack of acting can’t be blamed on them; I have seen many of them in superb action. Željko Lučić (astonishing in Martin Kušej’s Macbeth) still made the most of his lack of direction, from start to (original version) finish. Giuseppe Filianoti (Macduff), in green-orange tunic, with his perfect black hair (like the illegitimate son of Muti), very blonde dead stage-children, and a blank stare, did not bother—though his dramatic capability and willingness is second to none, as proven (for example) with his Nemorino in David Bösch’s fabulous L’Elisir D’Amore. Their singing—excellent amid a cast notable for its evenness—was not affected. Tatiana Serjan too, stood out with her full blooded voice and—given the limitations—surprisingly three dimensional Lady Macbeth. Antonio Poli (Malcolm) meanwhile managed to look so stiff and ridiculous that it took pressure off other secondary characters to perform with particular credibility.
For all the beauty of the conducting and orchestra (even the ballet music, which the Vienna Philharmonic had probably not played in decades and which was said to have been sloppy at the premiere, was well handled), it was all-too genteel for Macbeth. One of Verdi’s more brutal operas as a Sunday-stroll-in-the-park was an odd interpretive choice, as it lacked any and all urgency, violence, or truly dramatic quality.
The success and failure, depending on who you ask, of the Muti-Stein Macbeth hinges on the fact that there’s absolutely nothing that marks this production as 2011. It could pass, as is, as a 1972 or 1959 production, which is one reason why it is such an uncritical success. It offends not, it challenges not, nor does it confuse. Peter Stein doesn’t present facts instead of ‘interpretation’ (as he claims in the accompanying interview), he presents nothing, but with a ribbon around it. But an audience almost conditioned to having directors piss into their faces (very nearly literally so in Munich’s Martin Kušej production of Macbeth), can readily appreciate nothingness, left to celebrating itself and the ‘historic’ occasion. The reoccurring strange smell that crept through the Felsenreitschule every so often, somehow like perfumed naphthalene, was emblematic of the entire production.
All pictures courtesy of the Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli
* Incidentally I don’t think there is a critical consensus on the infallibility of Riccardo Muti. That his EMI Philadelphia recordings always went straight to EMI's bargain basement imprints within just a few years says at least something about public perception. Many of them are of a homogenized, bold beauty that leaves little of a mark and rarely excites, even when it impresses. As always there are exceptions in all kinds of directions; the most impressive for me being Muti’s Philips recordings of Prokofiev. His “The Fiery Angel”, Symphony No. 3, is in fact so fiery that at the end of it, there’s only blood and broken bones on the floor; the toughest, most uncompromising, and certainly most thrilling recordings made of this work. Unfathomably that Third (coupled with the First) and his Fifth (also worth seeking out) have been and still are out of print… but Arkiv Music’s splendid CD-on-Demand service (“ArkivCDs”) makes CDR copies with complete booklets available and keeps the price of used copies on Amazon down to a reasonable level.