When it comes to Verdi revivals, we know The Royal Opera's formula: choose a production that is uncontroversial enough to last several decades and flood it with the best singers you can find. It’s a formula that was in full working order for last night’s Macbeth and no more so than in the person of Anna Pirozzi, who has graduated from the B cast in 2018 (subordinated to Anna Netrebko) to the A cast this year.

Anna Pirozzi (Lady Macbeth)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Pirozzi thrilled from start to finish. She blew us into the back of our seats with “Vieni t’affretta!”, acting the part as powerfully as she sang it, flashing eyes and purposeful body language, a woman on a mission. At maximum power, her voice stayed smooth, without a hint of the stereotype of the glass-shattering soprano, which was notable because her maximum power level was very high indeed. In the tutti at the end of Act 1, with the Royal Opera Chorus and the whole cast in full voice for “Schiudi, inferno”, Pirozzi’s soprano shone brightly through the dense musical texture – a real tour de force. But this wasn’t just a demonstration of vocal power: she produced pianissimi in the sleepwalking scene that were every bit as compelling.

Simon Keenlyside (Macbeth)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Sir Simon Keenlyside isn’t one’s immediate idea of a barrel-chested, heroic Verdi baritone. There’s steel rather than brawn and Keenlyside doesn’t swagger around the stage. But while the approach might not meet one’s preconceptions, it works well for the character of Macbeth, who aspires to being the strong heroic character but repeatedly fails to live up to it, all too easily spooked by witches and ghosts. Keenlyside effectively depicted Macbeth’s mood swings between cold-blooded murder and remorseful, terrified child. Musically, he was always good to listen to, with attractive timbre and flow to the voice.

Simon Keenlyside (Macbeth), Günther Groissböck (Banquo)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Compared to most Verdi operas, Macbeth doesn’t offer much for the tenor. Macduff gets just the one notable aria, “Ah, la paterna mano” where he bemoans having abandoned his family to be murdered. David Junghoon Kim made the most of the opportunity provided, with an earnest delivery and a full-bodied, rounded timbre. As Banquo, Günther Groissböck paired up well with Keenlyside, the two generals setting up the action with drive and purpose; at 55 minutes, Act 1 is hardly a short act, but it went by in a flash. Banquo gets one of Verdi’s outstanding bass arias, “Come dal ciel precipita”; Groissböck gave it plenty of character and was impressive in the middle and upper range, but less strong at the low end, surprisingly so given what I've heard from him on previous occasions.

David Junghoon Kim (Macduff)
© ROH | Clive Barda

The evening’s other mixed performance came from the chorus. The big numbers for full chorus, particularly at the ends of Acts 1 and 4, were delivered with huge power and excitement. In contrast, the witches ' choruses lacked the confidence and togetherness that one might have desired and suffered from decidedly poor diction – I struggled to make out more than a few words.

Under the baton of Daniele Rustioni, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House were on exemplary form, particularly excelling in the shock-and-awe brass and timpani-laden passages. Rustioni cut an energetic figure on the podium, choosing relatively quick tempi but relaxing them when needed to give space to his solo instrumentalists or singers.

Egor Zhuravskii (Malcolm), David Junghoon Kim (Macduff) and chorus
© ROH | Clive Barda

Phyllida Lloyd’s 2002 production has aged well and seems likely to turn into one of the Royal Opera’s evergreens. Anthony Ward’s sets and costumes provide plenty of interest, contrasting the general gloom with the flash of regal gold, without forcing too many difficulties on the singers. Lloyd’s conceit of the witches as agents of fate who drive everything that happens stands up well to repeated scrutiny. This revival is worth seeing for general all-round qualities – but the evening belonged to Pirozzi. 

****1