Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre - Aotea Centre, Auckland
21/09/2022 - 25/09/2022
05/10/2022 - 09/10/2022
by Giuseppe Verdi
Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave with additions by Andrea Maffei
based on William Shakespeare's play of the same name
Conducted by Brad Cohen
Directed by Netia Jones
Presented by New Zealand Opera
TOTAL THEATRE: MACBETH AS AN OPERATIC ITALIAN HORROR STORY
Our turbulent era calls for an apt reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy, the Scottish play – and New Zealand Opera’s upcoming production of Verdi’s passionate Macbeth in September and October will do just that.
Directed by leading international opera, performance, and media director and designer Netia Jones, Macbeth promises to be a visual and cinematic feast that also speaks to issues of gender and power afflicting our world. With Ms Jones’s multimedia influence guiding the staging and experienced Verdi conductor Brad Cohen leading the musical performance, Macbeth will explore questions of power and who gets to wield it, the role and perceptions of women in society, and the current state of the human psyche.
Netia Jones says she loves the play Macbeth more than any other: “Through the devastation, there is something deeply life-affirming. The meaning of life comes to the fore. This is our own interpretation of a classic tragedy, a story about the ultimate power couple. “It is exciting to witness the energy, talent, inclusiveness, care and imagination at New Zealand Opera and a pleasure to be working on this fantastic project.
“As a director I am interested in wider social ideas and in the role of women, and the witches in this production represent women who are troublesome and disobedient. They are doppelgangers of Lady Macbeth, who has a central role, which is unusual in opera.”
New Zealand Opera’s General Director, Thomas de Mallet Burgess, says, “Opera is uniquely relevant to our time and place – it asks where we are going as a society, what our purpose is, whether we are outward-looking or self-interested. Not only new works but also the great works of the past that connect us directly to great minds. Netia Jones will create a new and important production for New Zealand Opera.
“This staging of Macbeth feels very Italian; blood is the essence of the piece and it evokes phantasmagoria, a feeling of excess. The overall look and tone will be that of an Italian horror movie, abstract and cinematic and rife with symbolism, darkness and light, and exploring themes of derangement and paranoia and how they relate to our current time.”
The new production features New Zealand-born baritone Phillip Rhodes, Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Kahungunu, and South African soprano Amanda Echalaz in their international role debuts as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, with a stellar cast of Kiwi talent including Wade Kernot, Jared Holt, Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono, Morag Atchison and the New Zealand Opera Chorus.
This production will be sung in Italian with English surtitles.
Children will be cast locally to appear in performances in their city.
Thomas de Mallet Burgess says, “We are thrilled to have attracted the stunning international talent of Phillip Rhodes and Amanda Echalaz to make their debuts in Verdi’s Macbeth, and to have this rich opportunity to offer local performers. Macbeth is the most presented piece by New Zealand Opera, and we are eager to see how audiences respond to this vivid interpretation.”
Ms Jones says this production will leave behind the Scottishness of the source material and lean into the psychological and emotional content of the piece as a profound exploration of human nature. “It will be staged in black and white, with cyan and red the only two colours on set. Projection will be used on surfaces, and there is a lot of symbolism – wood and crows, a feeling of mist and darkness. The staging evokes, as the play does, a place of natural and ubiquitous violence.”
New Zealand Opera will stage the production in September and October in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch.
NZ Opera presents Macbeth
Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre, Auckland
21, 23, 25 September 2022
St James Theatre, Wellington
5, 7, 9 October 2022
Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch
20, 22 October 2022
Macbeth: Phillip Rhodes
Lady Macbeth: Amanda Echalaz
Banquo: Wade Kernot
Macduff: Jared Holt
Malcolm: Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono
Lady-in-Waiting: Morag Atchison
Conductor: Brad Cohen
Director: Netia Jones
Set & Costume Designer: Netia Jones
Video Designer: Netia Jones/Lightmap
Assistant Director: Jacqueline Coats
Lighting Designer: Matthew Marshall
Chorus Director: Claire Caldwell (AKL), Michael Vinten (WLG), Andrew Crooks (CHC)
Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
Christchurch Symphony Orchestra
New Zealand Opera Chorus
Opera , Theatre ,
Wed, Fri, Sun
Opening the gates of hell
Review by Elizabeth Kerr 12th Oct 2022
The curtain was open, but a starkly angular, monochrome set gave little away as the Wellington audience took its seats for the opening night of New Zealand Opera’s new production of Verdi’s Macbeth in the refurbished St James Theatre. The first “standard” repertoire production by the company this year was eagerly anticipated.
Woodwinds open the overture with a creepy little melody, scurrying strings above and fearsome interruptions from snarling low brass. Under the baton of Music Director Brad Cohen, the musical scene is set by Orchestra Wellington in the pit and it’s immediately clear that this operatic masterpiece, based on Shakespeare’s tragedy, is not going to be a comfortable ride. A dramatic blood splatter projected across the set suggests the gates of hell are not far distant.
Enter the witches – and put away any stereotypes of ancient hook-nosed crones. The 21 singers of the female chorus cross the raked stage as solemn pony-tailed schoolgirls in white blouses and long skirts, the famous witches’ chorus sung with their backs to the drab grey walls. But what of those grotesque, jagged black tears on their cheeks? [More]
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Brooding set perfect for stars
Review by Max Rashbrooke 07th Oct 2022
“The road to power is paved with crimes.” So says Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s adaptation of the Scottish Play – and she’s not wrong. When power, moreover, is sought for its own sake, the troubles compound, and the result is nightmare.
In NZ Opera’s new production of Macbeth, this nightmare takes place on a stark, sharply raked stage, surrounded by walls whose design suggests brutalist concrete blocks and steel trusses. Everything is done in shades of black, white and grey, save for an occasional splash of red – for blood will out, as they say – and more rarely cyan. The result is a brooding, ominous Scotland where everything is out of kilter. [More]
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Adding to the conversation
Review by John Smythe 06th Oct 2022
If you love experiencing powerful operatic singing live on stage, supported by a superb live orchestra, see this production of Verdi’s Macbeth.
If you love Shakespeare’s play, prepare for a pared down account that tends to objectify the story rather than draw you into subjective empathy, despite the rich and dark musicality.
And if you are in Wellington and feel the price of your ticket (from $79 to $189) should afford you an unimpeded view of the important action, avoid booking seats down the left-hand side of the St James theatre auditorium.
Michael Hooper’s review of the Auckland premiere extols the production’s orchestral and musical virtues so I won’t reiterate them in detail here – just know that I agree. There are theatrical aspects, however, on which I do feel moved to join the ‘conversation’.
British Director, Designer and Video Artist Netia Jones has set it all in a huge grey box with a steeply raked floor, a vertical slit for upstage centre entrances, two garage-sized openings stage left for mass entry and exit, and what looks like a solid wall down the full length of stage right. In fact it includes sneaky vertical slots that briefly open and close to allow people to slip in and out, not that the staging plays up the sneakiness as such.
While clearly depicting the austere sterility of King Duncan’s court, the set also offers surfaces for video projection and an acoustic soundness that allows the production to proceed without audio enhancement. There is a moment where Amanda Echalaz’s ambition-driven Lady Macbeth is upstage, facing upstage, yet the clarity and projection of her voice remain unimpeded.
What puzzles me is that, more than once – and notably in the sleep-walking, hand-wringing, “out damned spot” scene – Jones places Lady Macbeth hard up against that downstage-right wall with runs off well outside the proscenium arch. Hence my caution about which seats to avoid. I find it astonishing that a set which I assume was specifically constructed for this three-city, nine-performance tour should prove too large to fit the recently renovated St James Theatre stage. (I assume it’s intended, by the way, that the golden decorative detail at the base of the prosc arch and on the adjoining lower boxes is bathed in spilled light from the orchestra pit, to contrast with the austere onstage set.)
That stage-right wall is also where the female chorus of 22 (by my count) Witches are drawn, like filings to a magnet. Julian Budden’s The Operas of Verdi, Volume 1 (Oxford University Press), cited on Wiki, reveals Verdi and his librettist Piave wrote the Three Witches as a chorus of at least 18 singers, divided into three groups. What is weird about the sorority is that Jones keeps them as one group and coiffes and clothes them identically in black wigs, crisp white blouses and long black skirts, like an army of hotel housekeepers (all the costumes are ‘modern’, by the way: generic corporate).
In their first entrance, during the overture, they slowly advance stage left to right, each reading from an A4 page that recounts Macbeth’s exploits of late – text lifted from the Bleeding Sergeant’s interaction with Duncan and Malcolm in Shakespeare’s Act I, Sc 2, recounting the heroic deeds in battle of Macbeth and Banquo. The Sisters neatly fold the pages and tuck them into their blouses. Approached by Macbeth (Phillip Rhodes) and Banquo (Wade Kernot) – in black corporate suits and not looking at all battle-worn – the Sisters prophesy in perfect unison the destinies of both men.
When Lady Macbeth appears, reading her husband’s letter recounting this encounter, it becomes apparent the sisterhood of Witches are replicas of Lady M – and I am still trying to reconcile this interpretation.
In her impressive programme essay, ‘A Walking Shadow’, Netia Jones discusses the role of the Witches, recalling the paranoiac fear and loathing King James VI of Scotland – who had become King James I of England by the time Shakespeare wrote Macbeth – had for witchcraft. She links this to the misogynistic vilification in subsequent centuries of powerful women, writing of “an England traumatised by the unnatural idea of a female monarch during the reign of Elizabeth 1st” and stating, “there was an emphatic desire after her death to reverse any shift in power that may favour women over men.” So far so recognisable, in deluded pockets of New Zealand’s here and now.
Having summarised the expected role of women in patriarchal societies (we only need to see scenes from Iran or Gloriavale on the evening news to realise they still have currency), Jones concludes: “Lady Macbeth herself challenges this female role model as much as the witches do. She is dominant and childless, persuasive and powerful, seductive and ambitious, and it is the blurring of lines between Lady Macbeth and the witches that creates the idea that Lady Macbeth might be the fourth witch of the play.”
Well, all I can say is that despite their witchy ways around the cauldron with “Eye of newt, and toe of frog, / Wool of bat, and tongue of dog” etc – none of which are included in the opera, although swirls of rising fumes do become a recurring image in the video projections – the Witches in Macbeth have more in common with the three Fates of classical mythology. They mysteriously prophesy the destinies of Macbeth and Banquo, knowing that the Macbeths’ human flaws will interfere with the natural order to make it come true in ways they never expected. Their paranoia – the twin delusions of grandeur and persecution – ensure they will be haunted by illusory spectres and so bring about their own demise.
Without this separation of the supernatural and human nature, the drama loses a crucial dimension, which I suspect is why Michael Hooper felt this production was two dimensional.
A gauze drop within the whole proscenium arch does allow some of the video projection effects to feel three-dimensional. Sometimes they embellish the drama and at other times I find them distracting, for example when faces are projected as images in negative and I’m trying to work out who it is. Towards the end there is a very busy and confusing static image imposed on the gauze which impedes our view of it on the walls behind. Only when the gauze flies out do we see it is scrappy ivy covering what has now become the outside walls of the sterile court within.
Surprisingly, I find the Les Mis-esque scene that follows, of the downtrodden masses preparing to confront the corrupt regime, to be the most dramatically compelling of the whole production.
It has to be said that the libretto itself does much to rob the work of dramatic energy. Basically characters sing of their foreboding that something bad is going to happen, then it does – often off stage – then they bemoan it. That may be an over-simplification but it’s how it feels. Then there’s the scene where Banquo and his exhausted son, Fleance, are fleeing in fear of their lives, yet Verdi has Banquo singing a long, slow dirge – as some sort of reverse psychology, perhaps, to get Fleance back on his feet.
There is a moment at the very end, between the new king, Malcolm (Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono) and Fleance, intended to imply the story doesn’t end here, that somehow lacks dramatic impact.
On the plus side, the way the apparitions of the future kings emerge is a consummate coup of staging. This and the singing – the chorus work as well as the soloists – and the orchestra, are what has the audience most abuzz as we leave the St James (to test Wellington’s public transport capacity to convince is we don’t need our cars to come to events like this).
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In 2010 the NBR NZ Opera remounted the UK’s Opera North (Leeds) production of Verdi’s Macbeth. Here are the links to our Auckland and Wellington reviews.
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Orchestrally ascendant, vocally formidable, production two-dimensional
Review by Michael Hooper 22nd Sep 2022
To survive, New Zealand Opera has realistically had to modify its grand vision for main stage, full-scale, live orchestra productions, touring the major cities. Macbeth is the latest brave compromise, presenting a work rooted in classical literature with a score by the opera master Giuseppe Verdi, in a pared-down staging, while retaining a full orchestra with principals and a large chorus. It’s a bit like a hybrid vehicle, combining fossil fuel with modern, clean electric energy. But is this a plugged-in hybrid, or do the batteries run out before the destination is reached? Essentially, does it have enough spark?
This is not the Shakespearean tragedy set to music; it is a creative work of its own. However, it does pretty much follow The Bard’s play, and includes (in Italian) some of the most frequently (mis)quoted lines: damned spot is still being shooed out, something wicked still comes this way, sleep is murdered forever, and we still wonder “is this a dagger I see before me?”
We probably know the plot from school studies, if we were so fortunate, or paid attention. It is a bloody tale, and when conjured into an opera by Verdi, the master of the dramatic, it must seize us viscerally and wring us out, if it is to be true.
The visual presentation is of a steeply raked, grey shoe-box of a set, with acute perspective and a cloven floor through which the child apparitions rise in Act III. Onto its surfaces, and onto a descending proscenium gauze, are projected largely greyscale images of the ubiquitous wringing hands, smoke and flame. The Scottish Play has inspired a heath-like palette.
I will try not to digress from the performance review, but, for me, opera is the ultimate combination of the senses. Music, song, language, costume and theatricality should bubble together like the witches’ brew to inundate vision, hearing, touch, and sometimes even smell.
Touch comes in two ways: vibrations from the theatre of the audio, which rides on the orchestra, and the vicarious sensual delight I get from actors encountering their physical space, threshing about in it, flowing with their costumes, touching each other and even occasionally whacking into or dodging objects.
When a dagger appears, I want to see someone recoil from its honed edge; when a bubbling cauldron of unspeakable ingredients toils away, I would like some theatrical, almost physical evidence of its heat and horror. While acknowledging the role and artistry of virtual presentation and projection technology, it is through all the senses that I become involved in the storytelling. In that respect I find this production two-dimensional.
However, let us to the good place go. Verdi wrote that his opera has three characters; Macbeth, his Lady, and the chorus. We had more, with a robust, committed and sonorous APO, featuring some glorious woodwind in the hands of the section principals. To this, add the usually minor role of Macduff, illuminated here by baritone Jared Holt. The audience’s reaction to Holt’s emotive, Italianesque, fluid and chiaroscuro aria ‘Ah, la paterna mano’, beginning Act IV, evidenced in his vocal, dramatic and communication skills, some of which had been wanting in that usual trio of ‘characters’.
In the title role, the formidable Phillip Rhodes hits the notes and inveigles us with his honey-gone-grainy vocal texture and sensuality. Many may remember his suave performance as Scarpia, the villainous police chief in the NZO production of Tosca. His role as Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd also showed his ability to straddle hypnotically the line between sleaze and power. Macbeth needs all this in the Verdi opera; a flawed power-hungry man of demons and destructive machismo, and Rhodes delivers this vocally. He would benefit from a few more things to throw around in order to give kinetic energy to his vocal accomplishment.
Amanda Echalaz as Lady Macbeth evinces technique in abundance, with sure-fire and full-voiced landings upon the high D-flats, minutely-stepped running, and unflagging, controlled delivery over the two-hours’ traffic of our stage. Her strength exhorting the mists of hell to arise is palpable. She, again, would benefit from more ambient engagement, however. While the work of two intimacy coaches has been employed, it seems that apart from the thigh stroking between husband and wife, the Macbeths are not really intimate, and in fact at one point (“Where is the man I once knew?”) they stand inconsistently back-to-back at opposite sides of the stage.
Wade Kernot as Banquo has returned to us with aggregated assurance from his performances and development in Switzerland, Germany, France and Australia. Hearing him span the score with such comfort in his register is an easy delight.
The chorus I find vexing. The three bearded soprano witches of the original score are supplanted by a tidy female chorus which seems shy to start, despite the notation for some of their phrasing being fortissimo, perhaps acknowledging more the composer’s comment that “everything is to be said sotto voce”. Whichever degree of force you roll with, in atmospheric terms, I’ve encountered more frightening check-out operators, while in costume they are more Gloria Vale than weird sisters, despite the hemline blood splashes later in the opera. This understatement persists visually and audially throughout the choral pieces, until we really get to the ‘party’ scene when the inherent power of the nearly fifty-strong chorus (not always all on-stage) comes to bear forcefully, and the acting assumes greater conviction. By the time Birnam Wood is in motion (Act IV, Sc 7) they become inspirational!
Emmanuel Fonoti-Fiomaono appears briefly as Malcolm, the King in waiting and executes his lines worthily, as does Morag Atchison as the Lady in Waiting.
Musically, Australian Brad Cohen pilots the Auckland Philharmonia faultlessly, and the singers are on the notes, with power and accuracy. From the composer’s ‘middle period’, Macbeth is Verdi’s tenth opera, the harbinger of melodies and structures to be developed in La Traviata, and also Il Trovatore and Rigoletto, yet it has few memorable melodies, which perhaps contributes to its comparative obscurity in the repertoire until recently. With its thunderous timpani and frequent brass bravura, it is a thrilling musical event. Theatrically, I am left wanting more than a few upturned chairs as a set, and some greater tactility.
Writing to his principal librettist, Francesco Piave, Verdi said: “This tragedy is one of the greatest creations of man… If we can’t make something great out of it let us at least try to do something out of the ordinary.” Perhaps this is the new face of opera in New Zealand: a pure focus on the composer and the majestic musicality of the masterpiece. Today’s reality.
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