Aotea Centre at THE EDGE®, Auckland

18/09/2010 - 25/09/2010

St James Theatre 2, Wellington

09/10/2010 - 16/10/2010

Production Details

Opera and theatre combine for compelling entertainment  

Verdi wrote of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth: “This tragedy is one of the greatest of human creations! If we do not manage to make something truly grand of it, at least let us try to do something out of the ordinary.” Driven by a faithfulness to the spirit of Shakespeare, Verdi created a work that was propelled as a drama as much as it was as an opera. As such, it calls for outstanding singers who are also compelling actors, who at a pinch could be cast at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The NBR New Zealand Opera’s Genesis Energy season of Macbeth is a restaging of Tim Albery’s award-winning production, created for Opera North in the UK in 2008. In that production, as with its New Zealand staging, Italian soprano Antonia Cifrone sings Lady Macbeth. Accolades for her 2008 portrayal of Macbeth’s infamous spouse ranged from “commanding vocally and dramatically, but not at the expense of a certain seductiveness” [The Independent] to “the most convincing and musically vivid performer of the role I have seen” [Spectator].

General Director of The NBR New Zealand Opera Aidan Lang says “Lady Macbeth has greater prominence in the opera than she does in the play, and hers is a very difficult role. It demands a dramatic soprano with huge intensity as a performer, both dramatically and vocally, while also requiring of her moments of vocal grace and elegance. The two don’t necessarily go hand in hand, but Antonia Cifrone is uniquely suited to this role. She will do justice to the contrasting, almost contradictory demands the role brings.” 

The vocal and dramatic intensity required of the singers doesn’t stop with Lady Macbeth. For Romanian Michele Kalmandi, the great baritone role of the haunted Macbeth is one he relishes. His portrayal last year for Royal Swedish Opera was met with high praise, describing his baritone as “strong, penetrating, rich and coloured and he has a wonderful sense of line. Each of Macbeth’s big scenes and arias were cleverly characterised by both physical and vocal means.”

Alongside him, New Zealand-born Jud Arthur, whose resounding bass is well known to local audiences, is Banquo, and returning following his exciting portrayal of Lensky in 2009’s Eugene Onegin, Russian tenor Roman Shulackoff is Macduff. New Zealand’s emerging opera talent fills the remaining principal roles with tenor Derek Hill as Malcolm, soprano Morag Atchison as the Lady-in-Waiting, and baritone Matthew Landreth as the Doctor.

The first of Verdi’s three Shakespeare operas, Macbeth is the classic tale of ambition, corruption and bloody revenge, illustrating with shocking clarity the trail of death and destruction caused by an unbridled lust for power. “This is an example of enthralling operatic drama at its very best,” Lang says. “And as the essence of this production is a seamless melding of opera with drama, don’t be surprised if you come away from this opera thinking that you’ve just seen a sung version of the actual play.”

Genesis Energy season of Macbeth 
Auckland – Aotea Centre, THE EDGE
Sat 18, Thu 23, Sat 25 September (7.30pm), Tue 21 September (6.30pm) 
Wellington – St James Theatre
Sat 9, Thu 14, Sat 16 October (7.30pm), Tue 12 October (6pm) 

Single Ticket Prices $49.50 to $187.50. Concessions available for senior citizens, students and group bookings. Service fees apply.
Bookings: The NBR NZ Opera Box Office, Tel (09) 379 4068 or (04) 499 8343, or:
Wellington: Ticketek, Tel 0800 TICKETEK (0800 842 538) or 
Auckland: The Edge, Tel 0800 BUYTICKETS (0800 289 842) or 

Further information: 
The NBR New Zealand Opera receives core funding from Creative New Zealand  

Michele Kalmandi
Lady Macbeth: Antonia Cifrone
Banquo: Jud Arthur
Macduff: Roman Shulackoff
Malcolm: Derek Hill*
Lady-in-waiting: Morag Atchison
Doctor: Matthew Landreth*
With the Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus
Accompanied by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and the Vector Wellington Orchestra
*NBR New Zealand Opera Resident Artist

Associate Director & Movement Director: 
Maxine Braham
Assistant Director: Steven Anthony Whiting
Set Designer: Johan Engels
Costume Designer: Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Designer: Bruno Poet
Lighting realised byJason Morphett

Great theatre: a must-see

Review by Sharon Talbot 12th Oct 2010

[Corrections made 13/10/10]  
Like superb singing? Go see Macbeth. Enjoy intelligent directing? Go see Macbeth. Love dramatic music? Go see Macbeth. Appreciate atmospheric theatre design? Go… you’ve got the idea.

Yes, NBR NZ Opera has done it again! Ideal casting, a superb conductor, wonderful directing and an apt production design (all on loan from UK’s Opera North) make this rare season of Verdi’s Macbeth a treat for lovers of both opera and general theatre.  

But don’t go if you like lavish costumes, pretty sets or charming music – Macbeth is not for the faint hearted. The music is dark, the set and costumes stark and the lighting harsh, as befits a story of ambition gone mad and bad.

None of this can be a surprise to anyone who knows Shakespeare’s play, which Verdi so lovingly adapted. The bloody rise to power of Macbeth and his wife has historically been seen as a cautionary tale against the dangers of “vaulting ambition” and the ambiguous price of dealing with supernatural powers. As the witches intone in the opening scene, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”

In eleventh century Scotland, Macbeth is a nobleman whose successful generalship of an army for the current King Duncan against the traitor Thane of Cawdor earns him that title in the opening scenes. Famously, Macbeth hears of his promotion first from bearded witches on the ‘blasted heath’, receiving confirmation immediately afterwards from the royal messenger. The “Weird Sisters” have further hailed him as “king hereafter”, while foretelling that his companion nobleman Banquo will sire a line of kings, though become not a king himself.

Inspired by his prophecy, Macbeth writes to inform his “dearest partner in greatness”, Lady Macbeth, thus ushering in Shakespeare’s most infamous female character. Reading his letter spurs Lady Macbeth to decide to “chastise with the valour of my tongue all that impedes” her husband from attaining the crown, which obstacle she identifies as his being “too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness”. She seizes on the news that King Duncan is coming to visit as a supernatural sign that the time of the prophecy has come. Invoking murderous spirits to “unsex” her, she orders them to take her “milk for gall” and to fill her “top-full of direst cruelty” (surely an irresistible invitation to a dramatic composer!).

Challenged by his wife to “screw your courage to the sticking place”, Macbeth stabs Duncan in his sleep. But, unnerved by all the blood and his inability to pray, he forgets to plant the incriminating dagger on the king’s pre-drugged servants, as they had planned. Exasperated, Lady Macbeth goes herself, promising to “smear the sleepy grooms with blood”, thus literally and figuratively bloodying her own hands.

And so the tragic spiral begins. Though crowned, Macbeth envies Banquo his prophesied royal descendants who will inherit Macbeth’s crown. To prevent this, he arranges the assassination of Banquo during a ride with his young son, Fleance — who significantly escapes. But when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost at a court banquet, the king is so unnerved that his queen has to send everyone home, pleading Macbeth’s illness in public and berating him in private. When another nobleman, Macduff, flees Macbeth’s subsequent reign of terror to join Duncan’s exiled son Malcolm in England, Macbeth orders the deaths of his wife and young children.

Vowing vengence and justice, Macduff and Malcolm negotiate with the English army to depose Macbeth. In Dunsinane Castle, Lady Macbeth has become so disturbed by the trail of blood she has unleashed that she is sleepwalking (another gift to an operatic composer). “Out, out damned spot,” she cries, obsessively dry-washing her hands. “Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” Recorded by the watching doctor and lady in waiting, her incriminating words seal her fate.

The embattled Macbeth seeks out the witches to ask if he should send assassins after the exiles. The witches warn him against Macduff, but assure him that “no man born of a woman shall harm Macbeth” and that he will “never be vanquished” until Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane. When he asks if Banquo’s descendants will indeed reign, they show him a vision of Banquo preceded by eight kings, the last carrying a mirror in which are reflected many more. (The mirror may be Shakespeare’s tribute to his new monarch, James I, who claimed descent from Banquo’s line.) 

Emboldened by the witches’ new prophecies, Macbeth prepares for battle, only to hear that the enemy soldiers have camoflaged their advance on Dunsinane by carrying branches from Birnam Wood. Confronting Macduff, he despairs when hearing that Macduff was not born of a woman naturally but instead was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped” (aka a caesarian). Realising his fate is sealed, Macbeth vows to die in battle. He is killed by Macduff, and Malcolm is acclaimed king. 

Macbeth is a role that has made the reputations of centuries of famous actors, from Garrick (who first revived the play in 1744) through Kean and Irving to Gielgud, Olivier and Orson Welles. Verdi’s Macbeth has attracted opera stars of equally high calibre, like Gobbi, Nucci and Hampson, of whom the Georgian baritone Michele Kalmandi proves a worthy colleague.   Dramatically he triumphs, his low-key naturalistic acting style highlighting the character’s tortured extremes and agonised contradictions more effectively than histrionic acting would. While the sottovoce (half voice) tone required by Verdi in the murder duet can be a little unstable, Kalmandi’s dramatic ability more than compensates. And when singing full voice in, for example, his fearful reaction to Banquo’s ghost and his last warlike aria, “Pieta, rispetto, amore” (‘Pity, honour, love’), his rich, dark voice produces lovely legato and expressive phrasing.

However, Shakespeare’s most reviled female character is arguably the star of both the play and the opera. Lady Macbeth’s ambitions and fate have historically been seen as a warning to women not to step outside their traditional nurturing role, but the power, passion and ultimate vulnerability of her character make her more compelling as the centuries pass. Her greatest eighteenth century exponent, Mrs Siddons, became so terrified on first reading the play that she ran to hide in her bed! Yet her interpretation of the role reigned supreme for 20 years and inspired the famous portrait by Reynolds of Mrs Siddons as the tragic muse. Great sopranos who have triumphed as Verdi’s Lady Macbeth include Callas, Nilsson, Grandi and Verrett.

Lady Macbeth is a tremendously demanding role, both vocally and dramatically, and Italian Antonia Cifrone sings it magnificently. She starts with accomplished coluratura in the first aria “Vieni! t’affretta! … Or tutti sorgete minstri infernali” (‘Come! Hear me!… All you infernal ministers’), which is a setting of Shakespeare’s tongue-lashing and “unsex me” soliloquies described above. Then Cifrone gets better as the score gets tougher! She delivers fierce power and beautiful legato in the Act II aria, “La luce langue” (Oh tender light), in which Lady Macbeth envisages the death of Banquo and her crowning.

While Cifrone’s acting is sometimes rather melodramatic and suffers a little from what John Copley calls ‘furniture acting’ (e.g. clutching the bed), this is a minor quibble. When she performs with Kalmandi, they create a chemistry that makes the Macbeths’ passionately shared commitment to power totally convincing – she urges what he both fears and desires.

But Cifrone’s triumph is her performance of the famous sleepwalking scene, “Una macchia” (the blood spot soliloquy). Verdi’s demands are enormous – a two octave range, every gradient of dynamic, and shades of expression from fury and terror to childlike puzzlement, along with fiendish technical requirements that culminate with a pianissimo top D flat – and Cifrone accomplishes all with thrilling tone and grace.

In the witches, this opera has possibly the most proactive women’s chorus of the repertoire, which is beautifully sung by the women of Wellington’s Chapman Tripp chorus. Verdi reportedly saw the witches as the third main character of his opera, and this is clearly the opinion of Opera North’s directorial team, Tim Albery and Maxine Braham (intelligently realised for Wellington by Steven Anthony Whiting).. As an almost constant, haunting presence on stage, the women act as a Greek chorus, silently reacting to the action even when not ‘seen’ and involved.

As envisaged by the original production designer Johan Engels, the opera is set in a vaguely 1940s wartime where the soldiers wear Russian-inspired uniforms and the witches are dressed as cleaning ladies and midwives – a more historically appropriate realisation than Harry Potter-style, pointy-hatted hags. The opera begins with the three lead witches (Glenn Meade, Emma Sloman and Alexandra Ioan) perched on the raked backdrop, not exactly flying but certainly hovering. During the musical prelude, they deliver Lady Macbeth of a stillborn baby, which is fitting as the music prefigures her sleep-walking scene.

The blood on the bereft mother’s nightgown is the first of several recurring visual themes that unify this intelligent and subtly witty production. Blood, flame, trees, beards, knitting and daggers are the most obvious, but there are others, including babies who reappear (sextuplets, no less!) during the ballet music beginning Act II to add a touch of black humour. The women first bring out their knitting at the moment Macbeth first proposes murdering his king – shades of Madame Lafarge.

To meet Shakespeare’s description, the three lead witches stick on goatee beards to make their first predictions to Macbeth and Banquo, and it turns out to be no coincidence that Banquo also sports a goatee – later in the witches’ vision for Macbeth, all Banquo’s descendants are similarly adorned. My favourite is the moment when a tree is carried (unusually) branch first behind the scheming witches – almost a broomstick… but no, that would be too obvious.

New Zealand’s own Jud Arthur as Banquo is distinguished by more than his beard. His singing is ideal – endless legato, warm tone and effortless low notes. His acting has always been a strength, shown here in his tenderness to Banquo’s son and haunting quality of his aria “Oh qual orrenda notte” (‘Oh fearful night’) that hints at a premonition of his coming fate.

Oddly enough, it is his silent appearances as the ghost that stick most in my mind. Arthur always has a powerful physical presence, and the clever direction increases his impact as the ghost, by keeping him mostly up-stage and gently lit during his ‘live’ scenes. When he appeares down-stage and brightly lit as the ghost, his menacingly slow movements are all the more chilling.


Lighting designer Bruno Poet (and NZ recreator Jason Morphett) deserves much of the praise for creating the sinister atmosphere of this production. Dim, grey washes over the set are cut by fierce side-lighting that creates expressive shadows on the faces of conspirators, and enlarged shadows on the backdrop. This is especially effective during Lady Macbeth’s aria imagining her coronation, when maid-witches hold a crown just above her head. And the use of footlights, which deeply shadow eyes, emphasise Macbeth’s (literally) hag-ridden state during his final scenes (and incidentally invokes for me those long-dead Macbeth actors in olde English theatres).

Russian tenor Roman Shulackoff (who was the superb Lensky in last year’s Onegin) makes a welcome return to the company as Macduff. His powerful yet silver-toned voice is a perfect contrast to the other principals, and the lament for Macduff’s murdered family is achingly sad.

Resident artist Derek Hill gives us an authoritative and well-sung Malcolm. Morag Atchison is the Lady’s lady-in-waiting is dignified and clear voiced. Resident artist Matt Landreth as the Doctor impresses with his expressive beauty of tone and sympathetic acting. The apparitions – Michel Alkhouri, and boy sopranos Mark Wigglesworth and William Pereira – are effective, especially Pereira who sings with perfect clarity and precision while lying on the bed with his head turned (a difficult feat, even for a seasoned adult singer). Non-singing Barry Mawer as King Duncan gives dignity and a Churchill-like gravitas to this small but crucial role.

Conductor Guido Ajmone-Marson draws lovely playing from the Vector Wellington Orchestra, especially the wind section, and thrilling sound from the Wellington chorus. They make special impact in the finales of Acts II and IV, and particularly the yearningly soft refugees’ chorus ‘Patria oppressa’ (Oppressed homeland) that sets up Macduff’s lament aria. It is always up to the conductor to make an opera come alive on the night, and Ajmone-Marson‘s idiomatic expertise gives the mix of styles in Verdi’s partly revised score a cohesion that creates truly dramatic music theatre.

The terrifying final image that haunts me is petrol flung over a pyre of the dictators’ bodies and the flaming torch descending. This is great theatre – if you like great theatre, go see Macbeth
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


Make a comment

A tortured king, lean, mean queen and malevolent witches pack powerful punch

Review by William Dart 20th Sep 2010

Tim Albery’s restaging of his 2008 Opera North production of Macbeth for NBR New Zealand Opera is an engrossing night at the theatre. Its virtues, in the words of Ira Gershwin, are varied and many; musically solid, with pacing that, thanks to Verdi, his librettist Piave and one William Shakespeare, any Broadway musical might envy.

A versatile back wall serves as Shakespeare’s blasted heath, housing a door for the entrance of victims and exits of corpses and, most importantly, providing perches for three malevolently meddlesome witches. [More
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


Make a comment

Drama within the music gives a satisfying depth to the storytelling

Review by Penny Dodd 20th Sep 2010

The curtain rises on a misty wasteland, with three witches seemingly suspended in midair. The effect is striking and magical, in muted tonings of greeny-blue and grey. This is Macbeth without tartan; a mid twentieth century urban Italian ‘court’ with the men in black and white, all the better for showing off the bloodstains.

The austere and elegant set, a subtly painted backdrop (designed by Johan Engels), curves from horizontal to vertical, serving as interior and exterior and all manner of locations.

The witches’ uneasy presence pervades the action like mist in the mountains. They serve as midwives, peasants, a knitting Greek chorus, scene movers, and screen movers. Their prophesies inform the actions of Macbeth, turning his ambition into action and bloody consequence. 

Michele Kalmandi is a splendid troubled Macbeth, his rich powerful baritone filling the Aotea Centre auditorium, seemingly effortlessly. Antonia Cifrone, as Lady Macbeth, is most compelling, her character fully committed to the dangerous partnership of her marriage. She urges Macbeth on to commit murder, but the atrocity is finally more than she can bear.

They make a very believable ‘power couple’ until her death, when Macbeth dismisses ‘Life’ with Shakespeare’s famous “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. At this stage the action is advancing at warp speed, his own death not very far away. Their funeral pyre is prepared, the final placement of the ubiquitous wintry branches which serve in many ways, not the least as Birnam Wood.

The singing is the great strength of the production. Alongside Macbeth Jud Arthur commands the stage as Banquo, and was in fine voice on opening night. An emotional highlight is Macduff’s 4th Act aria, sung by Roman Shulackoff, his rendition of Ah, la paterna mano most affecting.

Morag Atchison (Lady-in-waiting), Derek Hill (Malcolm)and Matthew Landreth (Doctor)all deserve mention for fine singing and characterisation. 

I particularly enjoyed the bizarre hallucinatory midwifery sequence at the beginning of Act 3, complete with bouncing babies wearing crowns as the future Kings of Scotland. It signals a drugged nightmare state, but the parallel connection with the opening witches’ midwifery scene is perplexing.

Perplexing too is the use of the white panelled screen, which veils the bloody murder of King Duncan, and the death of Lady Macbeth. It seems heavy and awkward.

Maestro Guido Ajmone Marsam works wonders with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, allowing a full-bodied sound to support the singers without swamping them. His graceful musicality and faultless command of the music is a joy to share. The brass section acquits themselves wonderfully well, as do the timpani, and the solo clarinet.

And last but not least, the Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus, the ‘sine qua non’ of NBR NZ Opera. The thrilling open sound of this magnificent Kiwi treasure is a major asset. This is a great opera for the chorus, with features for women, and men, and a wondrous heartfelt opening to Act 4.

The opera is unusual for having been written in Verdi’s early period, and then substantially revised in his post La Traviata, Rigoletto period. There are some attractive Italian tunes, but there is also a firm sense of drama within the music, and within the vocal line, giving a satisfying depth to the storytelling.

NBR NZ Opera is to be congratulated on bringing this lesser known work of Verdi to the NZ stage, via Opera North in the UK.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council