“Cawdor, you are a conceited child,” Lady Macbeth hisses, as her husband, having just committed regicide, starts unravelling. In this new production of Verdi’s Macbeth, both halves of the power-hungry couple behave like self-absorbed children, tantalised by the crown. The shiny toy appears during the overture and keeps reappearing to command their attention, a gaudy focal point in the sombre sets.

Scott Hendricks as Macbeth, Vincenzo Costanzo as Malcolm © Bernd Uhlig
Scott Hendricks as Macbeth, Vincenzo Costanzo as Malcolm
© Bernd Uhlig

The plot unfolds under a contemporary military regime. Macbeth and Banquo, sweaty from jungle warfare, stride through lush vegetation that half-conceals the witches, in homespun drab and with tumbleweed hairdos. A military band welcomes King Duncan and the Doctor is an army medic. The ubiquitous uniforms bespeak systemic repression and the witches rifle through stacks of documents that could be secret intelligence files. Duncan is in frail health, suggesting an imminent power vacuum that nourishes Macbeth’s ambition. He and his Lady inhabit empty rooms dominated by a cot and a giant teddy bear, symbols of their childlessness. Lady Macbeth is a psychologically hardened automaton in a sleek wardrobe, preset to prompt her husband into power. Macbeth is feral-eyed as soon as the witches proclaim him future king. By the dagger scene, he is in full hallucinating, hyperventilating mode. Their interaction has a distressing, mechanical dynamic.

Scott Hendricks as Macbeth, Wookyung Kim as Macduff, Vincenzo Costanzo as Malcolm © Bernd Uhlig
Scott Hendricks as Macbeth, Wookyung Kim as Macduff, Vincenzo Costanzo as Malcolm
© Bernd Uhlig
Every acting detail of Andrea Breth’s libretto-driven direction serves a purpose. Even singers in smaller roles, such as Laetitia Singleton and Lukas Jakobski as the Lady-in-waiting and the Doctor, give intense performances. The Macbeths pace compulsively in their heavily guarded mansion, whose claustrophobic atmosphere is aggravated by the jungle growth fringing the bay windows. No need for Birnam Wood to “remove to Dunsinane”: it is already there, sealing the usurper’s fate. There are other powerful visuals, such as the banquet table laden with slabs of raw meat, but not all the imagery works. The audience, many of whom lustily booed the production team, seemed particularly irked by the immolation of the teddy bear during the vengeance duet “Ora di morte e di vendetta”.

The highest accolades of the evening go to Marc Albrecht and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, for an idiomatic and engrossing performance that was one stretched bow of dramatic tension. The trilling woodwinds and portentous brass in the opening bars struck on the right nocturnal undertones and inexorable momentum and both were sustained until the last note. The prodding rhythms of the witches’ music had a gleeful lightness, while ensembles such as “Schiudi, inferno”, the collective cry of horror at Duncan’s murder, rose with majestic sweep. Daring to employ both very soft piani and scarped crescendos, Mr Albrecht did not merely present a string of musical contrasts, but an unbroken chain of narrative links. Together with the impeccable Dutch National Opera Chorus, he gave the refugees’ lament “Patria oppressa” a truly tragic dimension, its funebrial pulse as raw as a throbbing wound. And without the players’ splendid musicianship the tenuously textured eeriness in the sleepwalking scene would have been impossible.

Scott Hendricks as Macbeth, Amarilli Nizza as Lady Macbeth © Bernd Uhlig
Scott Hendricks as Macbeth, Amarilli Nizza as Lady Macbeth
© Bernd Uhlig
The orchestra’s Verdian distinction was matched onstage by the magisterial Banquo of Vitalij Kowaljow and the thrilling Macduff of Wookyung Kim, who sang “Ah, la paterna mano” with Italianate pathos and bravura. Tatjana Serjan was on the cast list as Lady Macbeth for a year. Her recent silent substitution by Nadja Michael will have to be filed under Operatic Tales of the Unexplained. As it happened, Ms Michael was sick at the première and soprano Amarilli Nizza is replacing her for part of the run. Ms Nizza threw herself into the role with aplomb and, if this were a play, her steely Lady would have left little to be desired. Regrettably, the role does not fit her vocally. Her voice lacked dramatic weight for the big moments, such as the unhinged ending of “La luce langue”. Her breathy attacks compromised her legato and she often veered off pitch. Macbeth fans expecting clean coloratura and trills, puncturing staccati, or a spun high D-flat as the Lady makes her exit, some of the elements that make this role so spectacular, were disappointed.

In the title role, baritone Scott Hendricks was gripping throughout. Lurching maniacally across the stage, his self-pitying, addicted, sleep-deprived tyrant induced both fascination and disgust. At times viscosity interfered with his vocal flow and his dramatic involvement caused a few strained top notes, but his articulation was praiseworthy and his phrasing always integral to the characterisation. As befits a worthy interpretation of the tormented thane, he pulled out all the vocal stops in “Pietà, rispetto, amore” and laid bare all that Macbeth sacrifices for his goal. This production uses the customary 1865 Paris version, but with cuts, including the action-braking witches’ ballet and the final victory chorus. Instead, in the original 1847 ending, Macbeth dies onstage: a horribly believable, rattling, slavering death, during which Mr Hendricks declaimed, rather than sang, his anguished regrets. Malcolm, Vincenzo Costanzo as a cocky, cigar-puffing revolutionary, picks up the crown. There is no relief for this tropical Scotland; just like the sparkly bauble, its people are passed on from one dictator to the next.