Béla Perencz as Macbeth, Ladies of the Chorus of Opera North © Bill Cooper
Béla Perencz as Macbeth, Ladies of the Chorus of Opera North
© Bill Cooper
At first sight, when the curtain goes up, they seem to be floating in the air above a bleak wasteland strewn with crumpled-up newspapers, but they are perched, waiting like birds of prey, these three witches who look like headscarved charwomen from about 80 years ago. It was about that long ago that Cambridge professor L.C. Knights came up with his famous mock-essay question, “How many children had Lady Macbeth?” which was part of his attack on other literary critics who emphasized character analysis above all else, and his arguments still resonate. The question must have simmered in director Tim Albery’s mind for this intelligent production, a welcome revival from six years ago. The three perching principals (Irene Evans, Vivienne Bailey and Nicola Unwin) are soon joined by others of their sinister kind, who busy themselves, as the doom-laden prelude progresses, with producing little baby bundles from a woman on an iron framed bed, a bed which is used in various contexts throughout the opera. The bundles sometimes end up in a bin, because these women are back street abortionists as well as the midwives who will help future kings into the world. The bed is the one in which King Duncan (an elegant David Robertson) will be stabbed behind a screen and in which Lady Macbeth has her mental crisis just before she sleepwalks.
Kelly Cae Hogan as Lady Macbeth, Béla Perencz as Macbeth © Bill Cooper
Kelly Cae Hogan as Lady Macbeth, Béla Perencz as Macbeth
© Bill Cooper

It is clear from the start that the female characters make most of the running, more or less as Verdi intended. The massed witches are a main character, a well-marshalled crowd (chorusmaster Martin Wettges) which can be subtle and insidious as well as strident and bloodcurdling, and Lady Macbeth has a much bigger part than in the Shakespeare play. Soprano Kelly Cae Hogan is a proper prima donna here, a managerial presence in a navy-blue two-piece with a thrilling voice – and some lovely coloratura twirls. She is excellent when she calls down the powers of darkness to unsex her, and when she is walking with the candle, stricken by horrific memories.

Béla Perencz as Macbeth, Ladies of the Chorus of Opera North © Bill Cooper
Béla Perencz as Macbeth, Ladies of the Chorus of Opera North
© Bill Cooper

Béla Perencz is a commanding presence when appropriate, but he is at his best in this opera when he is losing it, especially after he has drunk from what appears to be a cup of tea given him by the beaming charwomen in Act III: his voice conveys paranoia beautifully as he hallucinates, in a particularly well-staged scene in which a bloodstained boy treble as one of the apparitions sings with his head on the pillow of that bed, and Fleance (Finton Flynn) wears a golden crown, flauntingly. The crowns in the production are all of the kind worn by Babar the Elephant in the illustrated books, possibly a reference to innocent childhood. Lady Macbeth looks at a crown longingly, as she would, this character controlled by her ambition who once gave birth, and Lady Macduff (I assume) produces an astonishing number of baby bundles in that bed again, surrounded by the witch chorus, which end up with little golden crowns on their heads. It gets dangerously close to comedy.

Jung Soo Yun as Macduff, Chorus of Opera North © Bill Cooper
Jung Soo Yun as Macduff, Chorus of Opera North
© Bill Cooper
Paul Whelan’s rich baritone and his attention to fine details turn his Banquo into a major presence, and Robyn Lyn Evans as Malcolm gives us a brief glimpse of his glowing talents as he leads the liberating army, grey-uniformed and vaguely Central European, but the real find of the evening is tenor Jung Soo Yun, who as Macduff produces the most stunning aria of the evening, a showstopper, as he sings of the lady and the offspring he has left behind him in the oppressed land of Scotland, in a powerful “sob” style which would have been recognized by the original Italian audiences, who would have responded with plenty of applause. That is what we did, anyway.

The Orchestra of Opera North, on this occasion conducted by Tobias Ringborg, proves itself once again to be top-flight.

****1