Frequently forgotten or ignored, the conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has seen over five and a half million killed over the last 20 years. This week at the Auckland Arts Festival, performance company Third World Bunfight and director Brett Bailey deploy this conflict as a strikingly moving backdrop in which to frame an adaptation of Verdi’s Macbeth. Bailey’s macbEth: the opera, still sung in Italian, brings an entirely convincing slant to Verdi’s already arrestingly original work, providing the audience with both an exciting and unsettling experience.

Owen Metsileng (Macbeth) and Nobulumko Mngxekeza (Lady) © Nicky Newman
Owen Metsileng (Macbeth) and Nobulumko Mngxekeza (Lady)
© Nicky Newman

In this re-creation, the concept given is a group of Congolese refugees coming across a trunk containing costumes and props from a long-forgotten production of Verdi’s opera. macbEth: the opera aims to present what the refugees would do with what they found. We follow Verdi (and Shakespeare’s) plot pretty closely, with Macbeth a corrupt general who murders his commander at the behest of his wife; a tale of an overthrow of a king and taking of his place seems perfectly credible in this war-torn region. The chorus’ heart-piercing performance of the famous “Patria oppressa” chorus bookends and remains the fundamental core of the show; refugees lamenting the tragedies of their land and its people.

Brutality starts early, a chorus member being almost immediately dragged off by a knife-wielding thug. The contrast between this and the superficial lives of the Macbeths is intentionally rough; we first meet the Lady preening over text messages in a laundrette. Later on, she sings her drinking song with the stage set up like a bad-taste karaoke party, mirror ball included. The witches are remade as nefarious representatives of an evil multi-national corporation, making no effort to hide their glee at pilfering the valuable resources of the Congo and promising anything to be able to do so. Three solo singers play Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and Banquo. Flanking them on each side, twelve musicians and a seven-person chorus make up the sum total of the performers. Additionally, Bailey reduces the running time of Verdi’s work by about an hour, with only Macduff’s aria feels like a real musical loss. This dramatic stripping-down of the plot shifts the emphasis even more to the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Belgian composer Fabrizio Cassol's re-arrangement of the score keeps most of the melodic lines intact, but laces Verdi's score with African instrumentation and harmonic touches to create a musical atmosphere quite unique from the original Scottish setting. The arrangement somehow veers seamlessly between these drum-heavy African influences, eerie contemporary harmonies and more conventional Verdian rum-ti-tum rhythms. A particularly fascinating part is the reprise of Lady Macbeth’s drinking song, suddenly slower in a sinuous minor key, reeking of her desperation at that moment. Video projections provide a commentary both in language and also of accompanying images, ranging between graphic photographs of war victims and garish propaganda. Supertitles were purposefully demotic, obscenities abounding in language often quite different from either Shakespeare or Verdi’s librettist Piave, though the odd Shakespearean phrase remains to elevate the eloquence of certain moments.

Owen Metsileng (Macbeth) © Nicky Newman
Owen Metsileng (Macbeth)
© Nicky Newman

So much rests on the two lead roles in such a pared-down production and thankfully soprano Nobulumko Mngxekeza is absolutely magnificent as Lady Macbeth. Her gleaming tone fills out Verdi's lines admirably, huge high notes contrasting with many thrilling descents into an ample and exciting chest register. She also excels dramatically, every inch the scheming and ruthless general's wife, berating her husband mercilessly in their intense duet. The sleepwalking scene provides a much quieter but not less intense type of drama, with a good effort at the pianissimo high D flat. Owen Metsileng’s Macbeth, too, employs a wider range of expressive vocalism than might be risked in a conventional production of Verdi's work. Bailey's rethinking of the piece already emphasises the dramatic at the expense of more lyrical episodes and Metsileng’s connection with the text in such moments as the Banquet Scene is awe-inspiring, his ravings at the dead Banquo accompanied by sudden plunges of the stage into darkness. His frequent descents into self-doubt are perfectly articulated. Otto Maidi’s Banquo is charismatic, performing his aria with four soldiers acting as backup singers/dancers before viciously hacking him to death with machetes. Also worth noting is the idiomatic rendition of Cassol’s score by an ensemble mostly made up of members of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

Despite his own assertions around his lack of interest in opera, director Brett Bailey has tapped into a dramatic momentum and sense of narrative that is still very close to Verdi’s own. Additionally, unlike so many re-imaging of classic works macbEth: the opera allows one to reflect both on the original work and its relevance in the contemporary world, to truly see Macbeth through a new lens. It succeeds not only as a work of art, but also as a conduit for understanding of a frequently ignored and tragic conflict and an unforgettable reflection on the harsh realities of post-colonial Africa.