One of the highlights of the country house offerings in the 2019 season was The Grange Festival’s tremendous production of Verdi’s Falstaff. How fitting, therefore, that The Grange opened its first ‘post-Covid’ season this summer with that same composer’s earliest operatic foray into Shakespeare, Macbeth.

Gezim Myshketa (Macbeth) and The Grange Festival Chorus
© Simon Annand

Director Maxine Braham’s production gives us little in the way of the Scottish moors, compressing the action to a rather snazzy two-tier library. Her chorus of witches are a malicious bunch, writhing together as the curtain rises before spinning away into assorted dances, clad in an array of black leather reminiscent of punk rock and emo trends. So far, so modern, but then in march Banquo and Macbeth in full period armour. So begins a consistent clash between the past and the present. As the witches ransack the library, tearing open books and shredding the pages, one is left wondering if Braham is reaching for the meta, particularly in the eye-catching ending when – as the majority of the cast assemble before Malcolm – the witches coalesce around Macduff, an eerie suggestion that there is about to be a bloody repetition of Duncan’s regicide.

There’s much to enjoy in Braham’s approach, particularly in the silent interaction (and interference) between the witches and the characters, but it feels at times that the concept behind the production is incomplete. The library setting – excellent in some scenes – takes on an almost bathetic Cluedo-esque feel for the murder of Banquo, while the deployment centre-stage of a large noose promises, but under-delivers. Where Braham largely succeeds is in the character direction and choreography, which is vibrant and sensitive. The witches constantly catch the eye and the central relationship between the Macbeths is thoughtfully sketched, capturing both the ambition of the pair, but also a tenderness (at least before Macbeth really goes off the rails) which is not always depicted. It’s also a cheerfully bloody production with plenty of stabs and slashes, with stains galore.  

Gezim Myshketa (Macbeth) and Judith Howarth (Lady Macbeth)
© Simon Annand

Leading proceedings as our ambitious Thane of Glamis is Albanian baritone Gezim Myshketa, who delivered a thoughtful, introspective reading of the role. Myshketa has an appealing lower register, mellow and firm, and a ringing middle voice, though the top at times seemed to lack agility and higher notes seemed a touch strained on occasion. Myshketa gave us a Macbeth who slid from a military affability to a chilly isolation, effectively capturing the change in character as the bodies pile up. His Act 4 aria “Pietà, rispetto, amore” was one of the highlights of the evening, plangently sung with attention to the text and an elegant sense of line. Myshketa was well matched by Judith Howarth, who gave a formidable Lady Macbeth. Adhering to Verdi’s desire to avoid any “angelic” qualities in the voice, Howarth delivered a “Vieni t'affretta” with just a drop of acid at the top of the voice, admirably going for the top notes with creditable results, while the lower register was supported and firm. Banquo was solidly sung by Jonathan Lemalu, showed a rich and smoky bass voice with appealing articulation. Samuel Sakker’s brief appearance as Macduff was memorable, dispatching “Ah, la paterna mano” with a muscular tenor voice that clearly left the audience wanting more.

Andrés Presno (Malcolm) and Samuel Sakker (Macduff)
© Simon Annand

Francesco Cilluffo and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra had to make a number of Covid concessions for their Manon Lescaut in 2021; here, they compensated for this with a vigorous reading of the score that at times thundered just a little too much over the singers, hubble-bubbling over with excitement and dramatic tension.