It’s a well known tale in the theatre, but Verdi’s Macbeth is a big opera in all senses. It features several stunning set pieces and places formidable demands on the main principal singers. Normally there is a large chorus too, with plenty of substantial singing, so it was fascinating to discover how this production with only seven singers would measure up.

Elisabeth Meister (Lady Macbeth) © Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Elisabeth Meister (Lady Macbeth)
© Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

With Glasgow’s Theatre Royal closed for development, Scottish Opera took the chance to revive this touring production, opening across the Clyde at the Citizens Theatre, where its original director Dominic Hill is now Artistic Director. Seen in 2005 with its cast of seven, this time the piano was replaced by 18 musicians, who considerably added to the impact of this powerful opera. Derek Clark conducted the excellent chamber orchestra, taking the music along at a fine pace, with plenty of attention to detail, balancing well with the singers.

Hill referenced the Balkan crisis as his setting, so camouflage costumes for the three soldiers, then business suits for the more formal scenes; no guns, but knives. The witches were in casual dress, with colourfully wild, tousled haired. Tom Piper’s gloomy fixed underground bunker breeze block set was dank and atmospheric, yet adaptable to allow for some good surprises. There were crates of drink, copious alcohol being a running theme throughout this interpretation, and a working tap with tin bucket for washing all those blood-stained hands.

Scottish Opera's <i>Macbeth</i> © Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Scottish Opera's Macbeth
© Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

In a strange way, this was a curious hybrid of village hall production suddenly given mainstage values, which only emphasised what was missing in terms of cut scenes and lost choruses. Here, Macbeth murders Banquo himself as Lady Macbeth watches, thereby adding a different twist to the story. While Fleance still escapes, we missed out on the chorus of murderers. For a company which usually uses the original language, it was a surprise to hear this sung (and supertitled) in English, with Andrew Porter's translation slightly clunky at times.

Taken as a whole, this was a well thought through show, with very fine singing from everyone. Elisabeth Meister was a towering Lady Macbeth, mastering her long, challenging opening aria with ease, reaching for an industrial electrical isolator switch to dim the lights as she realises the implications of King Duncan’s visit. Later on, in perhaps the best set piece of the night, she led a storming brindisi as Macbeth grappled with Banquo’s imagined, then real, ghost, shocking the merry guests from their whisky and pickled eggs. By the final verse, she became more deranged as things got seriously out of control, spattering her guests with drink as she tried to refill their glasses with vodka. It marked a downward spiral to her haunting sleepwalking scene, where her secrets were overheard by a doctor and her attendant.

David Stephenson (Macbeth) and Elisabeth Meister (Lady Macbeth) © Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
David Stephenson (Macbeth) and Elisabeth Meister (Lady Macbeth)
© Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Katie Bird, Martha Jones and Sioned Gwen Davies were convincing as the witches, rather muted at the start, but suitably menacing later on. In an interesting touch, the witches took over the abandoned feast, downing what was left of the alcohol, eating leftovers and spraying the walls of the set with ketchup and mustard, before parading children dressed as kings in front of Macbeth. David Stephenson clearly relished his title role and sang his final aria particularly beautifully. Thomas Faulkner was a wonderfully pure voiced Banquo. Anthony Flaum was a strong Macduff, shocked at King Duncan’s death, stunned into action after his family had been murdered, rousing his men to Birnam Wood.

One test of how well this all works comes at the end of Act I, in the extended chorus when Duncan’s murder has been discovered. There is a long unaccompanied passage for the singers, eventually accompanied by single notes on the timpani before the whole orchestra finally joins in. The cast of seven, working hard to sing both the parts for principals and then the chorus, brought the act to a thrilling climax. The crowd at the Citizens, a particularly healthy mixture of all ages, clearly enjoyed this compelling but shortened version of this most Scottish of operas.