Scotland in the 11th Century, where Shakespeare’s tragedy is set, was a nasty place to be King. The vast majority of monarchs were killed by relatives or rivals or – if they were lucky enough – in battle. Shakespeare’s tale of Macbeth killing Duncan in his guest bed may be fiction (Duncan died in battle marching against Macbeth’s forces in 1040), but there was enough fratricide and gory deception in and around his career to completely justify the artistic choice. Director Christian Räth has transplanted the gory old days of kings and bloody successions to a modern setting, painting Macbeth and his ambitious bride as a dictatorial power pair ruling with military might. His opponents and their families are then depicted as refugees in a setting which hits close to home as Austria is daily flooded with Syrian refugees – one can easily imagine them too singing “Patria oppressa”.

George Petean (Macbeth) and Tatjana Serjan (Lady Macbeth) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
George Petean (Macbeth) and Tatjana Serjan (Lady Macbeth)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
The stage design by Gary McCann is as flexible and brilliant in its conception as it is oppressive and formidable in its appearance. Large, stone-like structures rotate and fit together in a multitude of ways, like massive 3-D tangram puzzles to create endless possibilities of walls, corridors, rooms and stairwells all of which give a feeling of foreboding that nothing good can happen here. The 'witches', who must have been creepy to run into at the opera cafeteria during rehearsal periods, are coiffed in long white-blond dreadlocks (remember those two creepy brothers from The Matrix sequel?), their eyes rimmed dramatically in red and black. They wear white nightgowns covered by military jackets, with sleeves stretching so long that their hands are completely cut off from view.

Mark McCullough’s lighting work and Nina Dunn’s video is brilliant here as well; the blood-red mass projected on a black scrim to open each act moves, dissipates into smoke and then clears to reveal the stage behind it. Banco’s massive shadow which drives Macbeth out of his mind was also a nice touch, as was the stunning black moon overlooking the scenes of the witches. The witches could perhaps be understood as underlying drivers – the secret whispers of the heart – which pull the strings and carry all players through their fate. They were visible in Macbeth’s dreams, crawling across his bed, as well as anytime the stage was rearranged – physically moving the pieces on the stage from position to position. Naturally, the theme of blood is a major player throughout the production. Macbeth’s bloodied hands in the first act return in the end, Lady Macbeth’s coronation robe is a ruby-colored wonder, and children in crowns pull bloodied sheets from Macbeth’s bed and parade around wearing them like robes. The red eyes of the witches are reflected even in the staircase railings by the final act.

George Petean (Macbeth) and the Witches © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
George Petean (Macbeth) and the Witches
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

No Verdi opera can be a success without great musicians and brilliant voices, and thankfully this production is strongly cast. The Philharmoniker played stunningly at the behest of Alain Altinoglu who conducted with finesse and attention to detail. Already in the brief, dramatic overture – haunting violin themes, low brass fanfares, and a darkly lush key theme – we were transfixed, and the most enthusiastic applause of the evening was reserved for the musicians. Vocally there was also very little to complain about – to the contrary in fact, getting to experience the house debut of Tatiana Serjan (Lady Macbeth) in a role that she was absolutely made for was a great treat. Her voice is a wonder of nature, like a sharp razor covered in thick, dark velvet wrapped in spun amber. It cuts through at every register, and is amazingly well-modulated throughout almost all of the incredible range demanded for the role. Her coloratura works well for her, and the color of her voice is dark and full, like burnished glass. Though there have certainly been more dramatic portrayals of the figure, she was completely believable as the ambitious, bloodthirsty wife of a half-mad dictator.

Tatjana Serjan (Lady Macbeth) and George Petean (Macbeth) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Tatjana Serjan (Lady Macbeth) and George Petean (Macbeth)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
George Petean, who jumped in with notice for an indisposed Ludovic Tézier, held up his end of the bargain well as Macbeth. Compared with his bride he initially seemed a bit more monochrome, albeit very solid, but grew into the role vocally. By his final aria in Act IV he was a force to be reckoned with. The inimitable Ferruccio Furlanetto (Banco) was unmistakably brilliant, as is his wont, making his character’s untimely murder and vocal departure from the opera during Act II even more tragic. Jorge de León (Macduff) and Jinxu Xiahou (Malcolm) were likewise impressive in their small but significant (and rather thankless) tenor roles.

Bravo to the Haus am Ring for a bloody good night of music, drama and beauty – an excellent first première of the season.