Verdi’s opera Macbeth is often considered less successful than his later operas, and considerably less so than his other two Shakespeare operas, Falstaff and Otello. Some critics say the music isn’t quite as adventurous as that of his later works, and that there are moments where the music seems more incidental, and less of a deep commentary on the action than in, say, Rigoletto, and perhaps they’re right. But something which Verdi had at this point in his career was a keen feeling for drama and dramatic pacing, and it is this which makes Macbeth such a successful and regularly performed opera. Admittedly, this owes a lot to the strength of Shakespeare’s original and Piave’s libretto, but Verdi’s music converts this from spoken into operatic drama in a way that makes it as gripping as the play.

© Matthias Creutziger / Dresden Semperoper
© Matthias Creutziger / Dresden Semperoper

In Dresden the curtain comes up on Philipp Himmelmann’s production to reveal a windowless corridor, with bright, fluorescent lighting. On the stage, bloodied women sing the roles of the witches, acted by scarcely recognisable, naked women, also covered in blood, appearing to be on the brink of death. Combined with the early 20th-century military costumes, and the use of the Kühnen salute (a modified Nazi salute, using only the thumb and first two fingers) the effect is of a concentration camp, where the relative luxury of the officers’ quarters (complete with a banquet and servants) contrasts totally with the lives of the witches, all overshadowed by a sense of unease and claustrophobia. In this setting our perception of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth changes. They are the evil product of a society which is already morally off the rails, and so the people they kill are far from blameless innocents. Though perhaps this only heightens our awareness of this aspect of Banco and Duncan’s personalities; feudal kings of Scotland, like concentration camp officers, were surely capable and guilty of dehumanising the masses.

Though the chorus of witches is a little underwhelming in the first scene, Markus Marquardt and Georg Zeppenfeld, as Macbeth and Banco respectively, are fantastic. Marquardt has a rich and projecting voice, and really lives the role of the subjugated husband. Zeppenfeld impresses too with a well-rounded but powerful sound, and an electric stage presence; even when he walks across the stage as a mute ghost you feel his thirst for revenge. Amarilli Nizza is a bored, bitchy housewife of a Lady Macbeth, an immaculate blonde in a glittering black number, and she brings to this role all the venom one could hope for. Her dramatic prowess is added to by her vocal performance. Her voice is big and projects well, and Nizza has a sense of legato that most singers can only dream of. Though she is somewhat heavy on the vibrato, this comes with explosive diction and phrasing, a particularly difficult combination, but one which works especially well for this unpleasant character. Mention must also go to the tenor Teodor Ilincai, who is particularly impressive in the small role of Macduff. Not many tenors can boast such rich lyricism, especially not in the top end of their range, but Ilincai almost steals the show through the sheer beauty of his sound.

The orchestra, under Paolo Arrivabeni, play with a great sense of drama even before the curtain goes up, with a wonderfully ominous overture. Especially worthy of note is the piccolo playing, notoriously difficult in this repertoire, but so perfectly played and in tune that it never risks becoming the “screaming twig” that so many orchestral musicians fear. However, one thing that I didn’t like about this production was the number of breaks. The regular 30- to 60-second gaps between scenes disrupt both the drama and the music, and while this was common practice in Verdi’s day, it is not something which one sees often in 2013, especially not in such a drama driven performance as this.

This is a great production, with a strong cast in this season’s revival. Though already eight years old, this staging is still fresh, and still invites you to reassess the piece afresh. Hopefully it will keep coming back for a few more years yet.