Pity the poor couple who arrived at the Hackney Empire in happy expectation of a production of Hamlet, only to discover that they had come the wrong night. Disappointed at the alternative, Verdi’s Macbeth, the couple baulked and fled: in hindsight an unwise decision for they missed an impressive evening of music. English Touring Opera’s new production of Verdi’s first Shakespeare opera has the ideal combination of good singing, convincing direction and a hearty sound from the pit.

Madeleine Pierard (Lady Macbeth)
© Richard Hubert Smith

With a central focus on the dangers of ambition and power unrestrained by morality, Macbeth can be a director’s playground and James Dacre takes full advantage of the opportunities here, though the unnecessary decision to use Andrew Porter’s English translation rather than sing in the original Italian was to be regretted. The setting was updated to the recent past; the stage was constructed to resemble one of those grey brutalist buildings that symbolised Soviet oppression while the costumes were straight out of a military dictatorship with the nobles in officer uniform and the soldiers in more grungy army outfits, in many cases incomplete. The witches, on the other hand, were outfitted in traditional nurse attire from World War 1, an intriguing temporal incongruity which evoked the war’s mass bloodshed and brutality quite effectively. It was a largely empty stage, but there were little details to enjoy, such as the bloody corpse of the previous Thane of Cawdor strung up at the start of the performance and Banquo’s assassins disabling a security camera before his murder. Where Dacre’s production really succeeded though was in his rigid focus on natural and organic reactions in his cast. The chorus were not just left to one side, but observed and participated. The central cast interacted in a credible and realistic way, with clear chemistry was developed between the characters.

The ETO Chorus
© Richard Hubert Smith

Of course a director can only encourage a cast to act to a certain extent, and Dacre was lucky in his selection of singers, all of whom seemed to throw themselves into their roles. Grant Doyle was a forceful, multi-faceted Macbeth, capturing the early torment and moral decline with subtlety. Vocally he was imposing; a little slow to warm up in his first scene and a tendency to veer into shouting aside, he brought an appropriate sensitivity and drama to key moments, most noticeably the banquet scene and the finale. As Lady Macbeth, Madeleine Pierard was a superb match for him and the relationship between them was deftly sketched. Pierard was not phased by the formidable demands Verdi places on the singer, dispatching “Si colmi il calice” with sultry flair. Pierard’s registers are well-integrated, as solid at the top as in the bottom, and she also seemed to capture that little bit of aridness that Verdi wrote into the role, a harshness that betrays Lady Macbeth’s ruthless ambition – a fine bit of vocal acting.

Grant Doyle (Macbeth)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Andrew Slater gave a moving performance as Banquo, and the care with which he acted the assassination scene was particularly strong. Slater’s bass isn’t the largest of instruments, but it was projected well and phrased smoothly. Amar Muchhala was an earnest, but underpowered Macduff, his “Ah, la paterna mano” appropriately melancholy, but lacking fire.

Reduced in numbers, the ETO Chorus nonetheless gave an uproarious performance as witches and soldiers, flinging themselves into the characters with gusto. Gerry Cornelius led a splendid performance from the orchestra, capturing at once the opera’s brooding bleakness and frenzied wildness. This really was a company achievement that showed ETO at its best; any town to which the production tours is in for a treat.