Forget 11th-century Scotland. Ivo van Hove views Macbeth as an exploration of what people will do for power. With the world of finance dominating politics today, he sets Verdi's opera in a Wall Street skyscraper around the time of the financial crash of 2008. With its hints of the 2011 film Margin Call, it's a concept that largely works, even if the vocal performances did not always hit their stride. This production is revived as the opening salvo in Opéra de Lyon's Verdi Festival, a trilogy of works dominated by political wrangling and the struggle for power.

Elchin Azizov (Macbeth) and Susanna Branchini (Lady Macbeth) © Stofleth
Elchin Azizov (Macbeth) and Susanna Branchini (Lady Macbeth)
© Stofleth

In Jan Versweyveld's set, an office is wrapped by laptop screens over which supersized video plays. Digits tumble down the big screen as the markets plummet and flashing numbers form the shape of the three apparitions that haunt Macbeth in Act 3. Van Hove has the witches as stock market speculators who forecast Macbeth's success. As an ambitious city slicker, Macbeth easily succumbs to their self-fulfilling prophesies. He texts Lady Macbeth the news (even though they're in the same room!) and she addresses her aria “Vieni t'affretta!” directly to her husband. Duncan is the senior executive to be ousted – snuffed out just as she snuffs out the candle with her palm at the end of “La luce langue”.

Elchin Azizov (Macbeth) © Stofleth
Elchin Azizov (Macbeth)
© Stofleth

Film shot in negative shows the off-stage murders of Duncan and Banquo, the latter in an underground car park, his corpse displayed on computer screens at the Macbeths' cocktail party, at which Macduff leads a mass walkout of staff. Van Hove enjoys his imagery, an owl ominously swooping, talons outstretched. Macbeth is present throughout the Sleepwalking Scene, eventually strangling his wife at the end of “Pietà, rispetto, amore” which rather makes sense of his empty “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” response to her death.

Shakespeare's Scottish refugees become Occupy Wall Street protestors. A cleaning lady, silently observing events, admits the crowd, some in sinister black and white Guy Fawkes masks, who set up camp there, Birnam Wood's branches translated into placards. Macbeth is not killed but usurped, left broken, watching the protestors flood his office. Macduff even serves him a bowl of soup.

<i>Macbeth</i> Act 4 © Stofleth
Macbeth Act 4
© Stofleth

This intriguing production wasn't best served by the principal singers. In the title role, Elchin Azizov's gruff baritone wasn't always sympathetic to Verdian legato line and he has little stage charisma. Susanna Branchini was a little wild, but always exciting, as Lady Macbeth. Verdi didn't want a beautiful sound, but there were moments when her cabaletta was messy. Despite suspect intonation in the Sleepwalking scene – with an ugly final note where she quickly veered away from taking the high D flat – it was a creditable performance. As Macduff, Russian tenor Arseny Yakovlev found himself in huge trouble in “Ah, la paterna mano”, trying to croon too softly, magnified by having a film crew in his face, so his misfortunes were writ large on the gigantic screen above. Veteran bass Roberto Scandiuzzi still has a huge resonant voice, if a little hollow mid-range, and Banquo's aria “Come dal ciel precipita” contained the finest singing of the evening, nobly phrased.

The finest Verdian, though, was in the pit. Daniele Rustioni drove the performance on, relishing Verdi's buoyant rhythms in a pulsating reading. He also drew nuanced singing from his excellent chorus, the highlight being a powerful “Patria oppressa”. Rustioni only took up his post as Principal Conductor last September and he is clearly already an enormous asset to the company. Opéra de Lyon will do well to keep him here.

***11