It’s rare to see an innovative opera production whose every last facet fits into an integrated whole – where the singing is stellar, the orchestra seems to have a visceral connection to the music through a fine conductor, the costumes perfectly fit the drama, and the staging is as innovative as it is effective. Yet that was this production. Barrie Kosky’s new Macbeth is as pared down of decoration as any opera I’ve recently seen. Yet for want of extraneous detail and irritating gimmicks, the focus here is on Verdi’s expansive score, the psychological turmoil of the principals, and a stark stage design that brings those attributes more to the fore.

Having premiered in Florence in 1847, Macbeth marked Verdi’s first usage of a Shakespeare drama, and its dark portrayal into regicide and ruthlessness took the composer far from the realms of the proverbial. Contrary to the Shakespeare forerunner on which it was based, Verdi’s version − the Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave − does not revolve around love and the tragic conflict it fosters. Instead, it concerns itself with the hunger for power and its irrefutable attraction, a drama that ultimately drives the principals down into madness.  

Scottish commander Macbeth is pushed by his ambitious wife and spurred on by three prophesies to aspire to the throne, and goes to murderous lengths to attain it. The action simmers in a bloody brew of murder, fear and – in the end − psychosis. Given that, Klaus Grünberg's set decoration was simply brilliant. While the curtain opens, a lumpy figure, covered in the corpses of some dozen crows, lies face down under a light cast down on him from above. The rest of the stage is − and for the most part, stays − black, until candles are lit successively along the perimeters of what seems “our” end of a long square tunnel, whose depths at the back remain invisible. Then, emerging slowly from those shadows, some twenty nude “witches” appear – male, female, hermaphrodite – the “agents of Hell” that will interact with the prostrate man, and can “ignite mortals to bloody deeds”. And well they do.

As a lovesick Macbeth, baritone Markus Brück took up the gauntlet to kill, but he also assumed a new profile as the lead in the Zurich production. Daring not risk her loss of faith − albeit a bit scruffy for a king − he fawns over his Lady here, succumbing to her embraces like a grateful child. Brück’s powerful voice was better suited to violent emotional outbursts than to the subtle nuances of his character’s indecision. But he mastered even the most demanding of stage directions, even hosting a circle of some 25 naked witches who climbed up his body and pressed their worm-like fingers around his face while he sang for deliverance.

While Lady Macbeth’s poignant solo “La luce langue” gave soprano Tatiana Serjan a chance to share her voice’s softest timbre; the first murder − or “deed that cannot be undone” − destined her to a more expansive range. She sang flawlessly as regal and devious, as ruthless and unforgiving. What’s more, to stunning effect, her stiff, almost puritanical black brocade gown – one among many triumphs by costume designer Klaus Bruns – billowed out behind her when she turned as if she were a black lily. And in Act IV, consumed by guilt and horror, she sang through the famous sleepwalking scene with the sweet overtone of innocence we often see in the truly deranged.

In that scene, as in others, the raven is used effectively as an omen of misfortune. Successive murders end in explosions of black feathers; both Macbeth and his Lady speak to the birds as their deeds come to haunt them. Another clever staging device was the rhythmic, heavy breathing that marked either the aftermath of heinous deeds or made an evil chorus of what was simply mundane. Finally, where suffering and dying seemed the rule of the day, the “oppressed fatherland” that Macbeth’s acts triggered held a mirror up to political events of today. If, as the choir sings in Act III, the “wrath of God will soon destroy the villain”, then this Macbeth may also serve as a symbol of hope towards moderating the world’s most pressing injustices.

Wenwei Zhang’s bass made for a noble Banco (Banquo); and Pavol Breslik sang an impeccable Macduff. Both singers’ tenures at the Zurich house have endeared them to the locals; but any accolades here were more than deserved. The house chorus and supplementary choirs, under Ernst Raffelsberger’s direction, seamlessly met the demands of the burly score, and the musicians of the Philharmonia Zürich excelled under the dynamic young conductor Teodor Currentzis.