Ukranian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska made a sensational Royal Opera debut earlier this season, as a late substitute for the title role of Aida. In the revival of Phyllida Lloyd's production of Verdi's Macbeth, she produced an equally commanding performance. From the moment we see her reading Macbeth's letter, there is no question as to who is in charge: her aria Vieni t'affretta!, the ironically gracious instruction to her servant to prepare Duncan "a welcome fit for a king," the following Duncano sarà qui and her part in the duet with Macbeth establish her as commanding both the action and the music.

Simon Keenlyside as Macbeth and Liudmyla Monastyrska as Lady Macbeth get down to some plotting © 2011 The Royal Opera / Clive Barda
Simon Keenlyside as Macbeth and Liudmyla Monastyrska as Lady Macbeth get down to some plotting
© 2011 The Royal Opera / Clive Barda

The other outstanding performance of the first act came from the Royal Opera chorus. Verdi calls on them to take on many different guises (Shakespeare's three witches are multiplied into a whole chorus load, and they also have to be soldiers, servants and ordinary people of Scotland), and they delivered the big chorus numbers with real firepower. But, otherwise, things were a little slow to warm up. Simon Keenlyside seemed strangely downbeat as Macbeth, as if already wearied by the foreknowledge of his impending doom. Raymond Aceto's Banquo was beautifully sung, but I didn't get much in the way of claustrophobia or terror at the supernatural. All in all, both Pappano's conducting and the vocal performances seemed a little too genteel.

But unlike many Verdi operas, this performance of Macbeth just kept getting better. Schiudi, inferno, the big chorus at the end of Act II where the assembled company demand that hell open its jaws to receive Duncan's murderer, came across with huge power, and in Acts III and IV the growing siege mentality of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and their steady descent into insanity were portrayed quite brilliantly. Monastyrska showed that she is a lot more than just a belter by giving us a wonderfully sensitive account of the sleepwalking scene ("Out, damned spot," for those who know their Shakespeare) and by the end, both orchestra and singers had the audience thoroughly captivated.

This is an opera for which the choice of text matters. When Verdi first wrote the opera in 1847, he considered it one of his best works, but that didn't stop him amending it substantially for a Paris performance in 1865. Verdi purists complain that the revisions are out of character with the original: there's some justice to this, but it's also true that they contain music that adds considerably to the power and drama. This production followed the 1865 version, with the added bonus of Macbeth's dying aria from the original, which Keenlyside sang quite superbly.

Phyllida Lloyd's production is difficult to classify. Costumes have a period-ish feel without being in any defined period (certainly not in either Elizabethan or Mediaeval Scotland), while sets are modern and abstract. There are many interesting effects: rather than pointy hats and beards, the witches' black cloaks are topped with bright orange "queen of hearts" headdresses; the branches of Birnam wood are red and bare, serving more as lances than cover, the various Kings of Scotland (Macbeth and Lady included) are clothed in pure gold from head to toe, and the throne room of Scotland is a cleverly wrought wireframe of a gilded cage. I particularly enjoyed the full-body scarlet armour of the first of the ghostly apparitions. Somehow, the whole was less than the sum of its parts: there was plenty of good stuff, but it was all a bit static, and I wasn't really grabbed.

Until, that is, the last act, where singing, acting, music and production all came together in a big way, generating real emotional charge and leaving us on a huge high. This was the first night, and I suspect that this is a production that will only get better through its run.

****1