A third Verdi opera and a fifth production on a Melbourne stage for the month of May playing to shoulder to shoulder audiences is very much making the city feel like the centre of global opera right now.
On Tuesday evening, it was Melbourne Opera turning up the heat and, once again, mounting great heights with the bristling multilayered drama of Verdi’s four-act version of Shakespeare’s early 17th century play, Macbeth.
Stage and film director Bruce Beresford creates a uniformly engaging blend of mise-en-scènes in his exploration of the relationship between greed for power and conscience on one hand and fate and free will on the other.
At his service is a powerhouse team giving their all to a banquet of dramatic singing and rich character portrayal which charges the plot with riveting fine results. In all, it forms a showpiece for some exceptional home-grown talent.
Verdi’s Macbeth, premiering in 1847 and composed in the fruitful years that launched his universal acclaim, abounds with a climate of unrest and superstition in which the quest for absolute power is so great, no less than a royal murder can satisfy its need.
Throughout, Beresford keeps direction of movement simple but highly effective, giving clear focus to the actions of individuals and enabling a huge chorus of more than 60 to present with vivid intent.
A general brooding darkness with hints of silvery light in Rob Sowinski’s expert lighting design reveals both designer Gregory Carroll’s rugged, blackened and lofty cavernous setting as well as his period costumes of muted tones and rich textural variety.
A thoughtful sense of visual economy is employed which sufficiently impresses and a few symbolic projections serving their purpose well by Cordelia Beresford include a bloodied dagger, the washing of hands and a crown.
As a challenging peak and famous vehicle for soprano and baritone leads, the Macbeths are rendered with considerable might and acuity by Simon Meadows and Helena Dix. When they first make their appearances, they exude an air of youthfulness, Meadows’ Macbeth tellingly ill at ease with himself but which is sung with measured weight and Dix, in long plaits, almost coyly girlish in her demeanour.
Dix’s sweetly spoken reading of Macbeth’s letter is a beginning that belies the brilliant, dizzying trajectory to come. Meadows traverses Macbeth’s emotional spectrum with great conviction. How the couple manipulate dynamics via voice and behaviour through their personal destined course and blend together is compelling theatre.
Macbeth receives the crown from his wife which she takes from atop the blood-stained sheet covering the dead king in a morbidly climactic spectacle of well-honed drama. Thereafter, Meadows’ performance escalates with a vocally impassioned sturdiness as Macbeth’s mind uncoils up until the plangent, introspective mood of Act 4’s final big aria after having learnt that the English-backed Scottish insurgents are advancing, Pietà, rispetto, amore.
It is wonderful to have Helena Dix back in our midst and, like Meadows, giving a knockout role debut. Dix invokes a brutally impressive brew of imperiousness, cunning and glazed madness. One showstopper after another, Dix whips up notes of cyclonic strength and emotive intensity with a feast of incisively sculpted coloratura and embellishments.
From Act 1’s determined Or tutti, sorgete / Arise now, all you ministers of hell to Act 2’s frolicking but soul-shrouded brindisi through to a transfixing Sleepwalking Scene and drunk with murderous thoughts in between, Dix revels in the moment and so too does her audience.
Adrian Tamburini’s valiant Banquo is a magnetic force, his resonant molten bass baritone effortlessly spanning the music and completing his short-lived time on stage with a splendid Come dal ciel precipita / O, how the darkness falls from heaven in a heartfelt embrace of a father and his son who, looking up to him, never takes his eyes off his father.
The wait seems too long to hear Samuel Sakker strut his glowing, muscular tenor for Macduff’s big aria, bringing enormous sensitivity and stature to Act 4’s Ah, la paterna mano / Ah, the paternal hand.
Among smaller roles, there is excellence aplenty in up and coming tenor Robert Macfarlane’s brave Malcolm and, though fleeting, listen out for soprano Eleanor Greenwood cut through an entire musical tsunami as Lady Macbeth’s lady in waiting.
The chorus of witches concoct some fabulous singing, the men of the chorus somewhat less so but they come together for every throng in perfectly combined strength.
On opening night, the heat in the strings took a little time reaching the mark but, alongside them, relaxed woodwind and confident brass and percussion responded well to conductor Greg Hocking’s structured dramatic vision. The threatening and thunderous orchestral passages shot through Her Majesty’s Theatre with astounding beauty.
Finally, a special mention goes to fight coordinator Charlie Mycroft. Act 4’s battlefield scene is superbly enacted with really thrilling sword fighting, which got me thinking. Melbourne Opera, it is true, are sharpening every tool in their armoury as they continue to go from strength to strength.
Her Majesty’s Theatre, 219 Exhibition Street, Melbourne
Performance: Tuesday 18 May 2021
Season continues to 26 May 2021
For more information, visit: www.melbourneopera.com for details.
Image: Samuel Sakker (Macduff), Helena Dix (Lady Macbeth), Simon Meadows (Macbeth) and Company – photo by © Robin Halls
Review: Paul Selar