Oliver Mears’ setting of Macbeth runs some interesting themes and had plenty of thrilling moments, but never quite coalesced into a convincing whole. The production, taken up by Welsh National Opera from Northern Ireland Opera’s 2014 run, benefits from the company’s peerless chorus and a strong musical performance from Mary Elizabeth Williams as Lady Macbeth while employing aspects of both 1847 and 1865 editions. The gore and grimly dystopian inner-city atmosphere often felt exaggerated, however, while aspects of the complex relationships between principal characters remained underexplored.

Luis Cansino (Macbeth) © Richard Hubert Smith
Luis Cansino (Macbeth)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The production translocates the opera to the modern world, in which the men’s chorus army becomes a mob of shell-suited, woolly-hatted thugs in stark contrast to the rather more debonair Scottish lords. Annemarie Woods is also responsible for the impressively flexible set, which works effectively as dank council housing and, spruced up with a few hunting trophies, castle grand hall. Perhaps reflective of the whole show is the large, graffiti-style image of a bloodied face on the drop curtain: this is a particularly brutal Macbeth, with Banquo’s murder and the execution of the title character standing out as savagely violent. Kevin Treavy’s lighting was similarly vivid in the climactic scenes. Amidst the throat slitting and enthusiastic dismembering of plastic dolls, though, one had to wonder what this violence really added to the evening. Though visually impressive and very striking, the production is far from subtle and leaves little to the imagination.

Mary Elizabeth Williams (Lady Macbeth) © Richard Hubert Smith
Mary Elizabeth Williams (Lady Macbeth)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Musically, the performance was almost faultless. Ukrainian conductor Andriy Yurkevych, ordinarily in charge at Polish National Opera and making his debut with WNO, directed proceedings with meticulous attention to detail, neatly and sympathetically balancing orchestra, chorus and soloists. Tempi were generally forward-looking, although the drama may have sagged a little early in the final act. The orchestra, particularly its brass section, blazed when called upon while elsewhere accompanying with stylish grace in the strings.

The undoubted champions of the performance were the members of the WNO Chorus. At the climax of Act I their appeal to the jaws of hell over Duncan’s body was shatteringly raw, without any compromise of diction, making for a spectacular scene despite the rather comedic paparazzi intrusion. The three groups of seven witches, each in brilliantly terrifying costumes, sang with great joy in their hellish potion-brewing, and managed their complex stage blocking with apparent ease.  

Miklós Sebestyén (Banquo) and Tomi Llewelyn (Fleance) © Richard Hubert Smith
Miklós Sebestyén (Banquo) and Tomi Llewelyn (Fleance)
© Richard Hubert Smith
]Mary Elizabeth Williams was enormously impressive musically, if not particularly disturbing dramatically, as Lady Macbeth. She sang with fierce power while also displaying remarkable control and pleasing legato in the bel canto style at extremes of her range. Appropriately enough, perhaps, she eclipsed her husband (Luis Cansino), who nonetheless gave his part with vulnerable, rather than tyrannical, character and wild-eyed madness when faced by the king’s ghost. Miklós Sebestyén was a wonderfully rich-voiced Banquo and commanding stage presence, and Bruce Sledge sang Macduff with unswerving confidence. Of the peripheral roles, Tomi Llewelyn’s diminutive Fleance was realised with the most memorably rich characterisation.

While there is a great deal amount to enjoy in this production, especially in the rich musical talents on display, the excessive gore and contemporary setting did not quite equate to a dramatically congruous whole, despite some interesting ideas on offer.