One of the time-honoured questions that opera experts ask about Verdi's Macbeth is “Who is the main character, Macbeth or Lady Macbeth?” Miklós Szinetár, director of Hungarian State Opera's current production, has a different answer: the main protagonist is fate, transmitted to events by the chorus of witches. Macbeth and his Lady are helpless, unable to resist the supernatural compulsions. The primacy of the witches is made clear by a spectacular coup de théâtre at the very beginning of the opera: the white robes which the chorus has worn through the overture vanish in an instant to reveal a swirling mass of evil creatures, dressed in black with flashes of scarlet. The choreography by Zsófia Nemes is impressive and well executed as the half dozen lead dancers writhe and contort to give the illusion that the whole chorus is moving at such gymnastic levels.

Lado Ataneli (Macbeth) and Szilvia Rálik (Lady Macbeth) © Péter Rákossy
Lado Ataneli (Macbeth) and Szilvia Rálik (Lady Macbeth)
© Péter Rákossy

But I'm not a fatalist and Szinetár's concept distinctly fails to convince me. For me, the essence of the story is that at every point, the Macbeths have choices to make, and at every point, the choice they make is the one that will drag them further into their self-created mire of evil. If they are mere puppets in the hands of fate, the story is reduced to a simple statement of how nasty the gods are, robbing it of much of its potency.

Lado Ataneli (Macbeth) and Szilvia Rálik (Lady Macbeth) © Péter Rákossy
Lado Ataneli (Macbeth) and Szilvia Rálik (Lady Macbeth)
© Péter Rákossy
Szinetár asserts that “it is extremely difficult to condemn someone who sings as beautiful melodies as Macbeth does” and therefore that “the seductive melodies make us sympathise with the protagonists, regardless of the crimes they have committed.” The casting of this revival (the production dates from 2011) seems to reinforce this, with Lado Ataneli and Szilvia Rálik singing very much in bel canto style, with plenty of legato and sweetness in both upper registers. The concept doesn't work for me, and I don't think it would have worked for Verdi, whose letters at the time he wrote the opera point in the opposite direction, demanding that Lady Macbeth be “ugly and evil” with a voice that's “hard, stifled and dark.”

The production has plenty of visual appeal: as well as Nemes' choreography, Péter Horgas's sets and Rita Velich's period costumes are easy on the eye. Szinetár clearly cares about the shapes in which people move around the stage, and the castle walls and ramparts that surround the main area are used to good effect to create a sense of space and a series of attractive tableaus. I was not, however, taken by Ferenc Cakó's animations, projected in sepia onto a giant screen above the rear castle wall: I found the naïf style grating and was distracted by watching the hand as it draws sand pictures.

Lado Ataneli (Macbeth) and Szilvia Rálik (Lady Macbeth) © Péter Rákossy
Lado Ataneli (Macbeth) and Szilvia Rálik (Lady Macbeth)
© Péter Rákossy
The singing of the minor roles was good. István Rácz, as Banquo, showed a fine deep bass voice; he only gets one big aria, “Come dal ciel precipita”, but dispatched it well. At the other end of the vocal scale, István Kovácsházi's Macduff gave a good account of his one aria “Ah, la paterna mano”. Lady Macbeth's servant doesn't get an aria at all, but joins in the ensembles: Nadin Haris impressed with a voice that shone clearly through the orchestral and choral background. The chorus performance was inconsistent, with good passages alternating with numbers in which the singing failed to make an impact: given the key role that the chorus plays in this production, better was needed. Conductor Renato Palumbo coaxed an orchestral performance with no major problems, bringing out the violence in the music when the occasion called for it.

Ataneli gave a good, lyrical account of Macbeth's final aria (the one from the 1847 score, later discarded by Verdi but included here) to bring some much needed pathos to a decent musical performance whose sense of drama failed to convince.