"I have given suck, and know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me". In Shakespeare's Macbeth the playwright hints that Lady Macbeth has lost a child, and that is the point of departure in Damiano Michieletto's new setting of Verdi's operatic version. Macbeth, plagued by psychological visions, gradually loses the plot and falls prey to his wife's ambition. This highly psychological reading, in which much of the action takes place in Macbeth's head, is coherent and skilfully realised. Thanks largely to excellent musical contributions from conductor Myung-whun Chung and singers Luca Salsi and Vittoria Yeo, it is also harrowing.

Vittoria Yeo (Lady Macbeth) and Luca Salsi (Macbeth) © Michele Crosera
Vittoria Yeo (Lady Macbeth) and Luca Salsi (Macbeth)
© Michele Crosera

There is no blood in Michieletto's abstract setting, the director instead signifying interest more in the work's psychology than the murders by having white paint poured over the victims. Macbeth's sense of loss is evoked with recurring symbols, such as plastic sheets which apparently signify Lady Macbeth's placenta. A large transparent bag, billowing above the stage, fills with smoke as Macbeth's lucidity wanes. Polythene sheets suspended between two walls streaked with neon lights move back and forth, the space in which Macbeth moves dilating as he becomes claustrophobic. The chorus of witches is headed by three female children (they first appear with their hair over their faces like beards).

Luca Salsi (Macbeth) © Michele Crosera
Luca Salsi (Macbeth)
© Michele Crosera

This is one of Michieletto's simplest stagings yet, minimal imagery allowing for maximum focus on the psychological core. But the ideas the director does provide are invariably coherent and clearly presented. When the doctor gives Lady Macbeth anti-depressants during her opening aria, she refuses to take them. Macbeth sees a ghostly boy on a tricycle, falling to the feet of his wife who delivers a terrifying "La luce langue" as she strokes his head like a dog – a powerful representation of the power dynamics between the couple. Swings descend down from the flies, creating a sense of tension as they dangle during the pause between acts. Macbeth stumbles between them, disorientated, as he spirals out of control, as does Lady Macbeth during her Sleepwalking Scene. Representing Birnam Wood with the same swings gives a psychological bent to the battle scene in which Macbeth confronts his demons.

Vittoria Yeo (Lady Macbeth) and Luca Salsi (Macbeth) © Michele Crosera
Vittoria Yeo (Lady Macbeth) and Luca Salsi (Macbeth)
© Michele Crosera

A strength of Michieletto's production is that it allows the music to do much of the work of emoting. Both leading singers, who had worked on their roles with Riccardo Muti for concert performances over the summer, have the characters in their blood. Luca Salsi, surely the world's finest Macbeth today, plunged the oceanic depths of his text, hovering between recitation and vocalisation and sculpting each word to communicate a wealth of emotions conveyed in defiant roars, plangent moans and cowering whispers. These qualities also characterised Salsi's concert performances with Muti, but now he could also use his hulking frame, which he did to great effect, thrashing in the battle scene or collapsing when overcome with grief. A powerful performance was needed from any Lady Macbeth able to gain the upper hand over this towering Macbeth, and we got one from Vittoria Yeo, who was drafted in at the last minute to replace Tatiana Serjan. This was a stony and severe rather than seductive reading, Yeo's piercing voice a perfect match for this interpretation. Her cries of "E' necessario" in "La luce langue" took on extra meaning when sung to Macbeth. Her Sleepwalking scene was icily-detached and spine-chilling.

Vittoria Yeo (Lady Macbeth) © Michele Crosera
Vittoria Yeo (Lady Macbeth)
© Michele Crosera

This was Chung's first production of the opera and, having shown he can make Don Carlo soar, it was good to see that he also has the necessary dark colours in his palette to make Macbeth seethe. Chung was this performance's column: he provided an incisive, vivid account of the score that did much to make Michieletto's psychological visions seem credible. A dry, hard sound for the score's most aggressive sections would soften beautifully when plangency was required, and swift tempos created a sense of inexorability. Simon Lim's Banquo was impressively rich and robust. Stefano Secco was a heartfelt Macduff, Armando Gabba a solid doctor and Marcello Nardis an excellent Malcolm. The final image of the latter character elevated on a swing during his coronation hinted at the cycle of destruction that arises from lust for power.

*****