They say that in a good marriage each partner should try to embolden the other to improve their status, to take on new challenges and generally to better themselves. The Macbeths may have taken the self-help book a little too seriously. The first of Verdi’s three Shakespeare operas, Macbeth is in many respects an ideal fusion of two great dramatic geniuses, for Verdi takes Shakespeare’s theatre, snipping here and there to remove any possible extraneous fat, and transforms it into taut musical drama. A story of political plots and usurpations was ideal for the politically-minded Verdi, who was keen to see his own country undergo a revolution of sorts that would dramatically reshape the constitutional and political landscape into a unified Italy. Some of the music is in itself revolutionary; Verdi's instruction that the voice of Lady Macbeth should have a certain dramatic ugliness to it was a huge departure from the bel canto principles of his great predecessors and opened up an approach to opera that proved Verdi’s credentials as a true man of the theatre.

Lee Bisset (Lady Macbeth) and Mark S Doss (Macbeth) © Fritz Curzon
Lee Bisset (Lady Macbeth) and Mark S Doss (Macbeth)
© Fritz Curzon

David Phipps-Davis’ production at the Dorset Opera Festival was in the traditional mould, and what a fun production it was. As the curtains opened, smoke rippled down under eerie green lights, conjuring up the witches’ lair. A curtain at the back cleaved off a rear section for use as Lady Macbeth’s bedroom (and Duncan’s, albeit briefly!), occasionally serving as another entrance point. The witches were in rags, Macbeth switched from standard period military tunic to velvet finery, while Lady Macbeth started and ended the play in a voluminous nightie. Particularly moving was the sight of the refugees of Macbeth’s reign, grimy and wrapped in grey blankets. As with the previous evening’s Onegin, choreography was good and the witches in particular were given some delightfully serpentine moves which were seamlessly performed.

Mark S Doss gave a thrilling Macbeth: his bass-baritone powered relentlessly through the music, showing ease at both ends of the voice, the bottom fruity and the top packing a real punch, while his sense of line was both authoritative and delicate. His psychological portrayal was also well-developed; face creased in paranoia in the second act, his eyes glittering with madness like the jewels in his crown − no ghost appeared on stage, the apparition presumably a figment of Macbeth’s splintering psyche. Doss captured the character’s development, from the first spark of ambition to his dismissal of his wife’s suicide, with exciting dramatic intensity. This was an ideal portrayal of the role.

The chorus (Assassins) © Fritz Curzon
The chorus (Assassins)
© Fritz Curzon

Lee Bisset’s Lady Macbeth had a coy seductive presence to her that was worryingly exciting; pressed against Macbeth, seeming thrilled (at least at first) that her husband was going to whack Banquo, her tone completely changed during the banquet scene, injecting every syllable of “Vergogna, signor!” with dripping contempt. Vocally she rolled out her character’s horrifically difficult arias with an easy top, but her lower register lacked the power to rise over the orchestra. There’s an abundance of colour to Bisset’s voice though, combined with obvious technique and her natural tendency to immerse herself totally in the role. Just comparing the naked, fiery ambition of her first bouts of singing with the dreamy vulnerability of her somnambulic aria "Una macchia è qui tuttora!" shows the variety of her vocal palette.

Michael Druiett was a noble Banquo; there’s a touch of good Port to his voice which gives it both warmth and depth, and his singing showed a notable savouring of the libretto. Leonardo Capalbo made a vivid dramatic impression on stage − pacing, and glaring with suspicion and contempt at the new royal couple − long before his showcase aria “Ah, la paterna mano”,  which he dispatched with passionate lyricism. Robert Forrest gave a moving, well articulated Malcolm, displaying a luminous tenor which has potential to grow.

The chorus (Witches) © Fritz Curzon
The chorus (Witches)
© Fritz Curzon

I wasn’t convinced by the Dorset Opera Festival Orchestra on the previous evening, but for Macbeth they were transformed: the strings had bags of character, particularly effective in the witch scenes, while the brass was generally much more secure. Jeremy Carnall conducted with dynamism, setting relentless tempi that kept the pulse racing; his knowledge of and enthusiasm for the score was evident. The chorus, as before, showed tremendous talent and professionalism − clarity of diction was perhaps slightly foggier in Italian than in the English translation for Onegin, but on generally they gave a commendable performance both vocally and dramatically. Dorset Opera’s Macbeth was one of those productions with a real sense of coherence: staging, casting, orchestra and chorus all gelled together to produce a thoroughly enjoyable evening of music.

****1