“Let’s make the Congo great again!” sings Macbeth gleefully in Brett Bailey’s reworking of Verdi’s opera, putting to rest the idea that opera can be separated from current events and politics. Vancouver Opera certainly picked the ideal time to present the South African company Third World Bunfight’s acclaimed production of the opera – though this production premiered in 2014 and has since toured around Europe, Australia, and South America, there is no doubt that the themes of government corruption, resource acquisition, and political dictatorships are especially pertinent today. Combined with excellent musical standards, this is a disturbing, entertaining, and ultimately necessary evening at the theatre. 

Nobulumko Mngxekeza (Lady Macbeth) and Owen Metsileng (Macbeth) © Nicky Newman
Nobulumko Mngxekeza (Lady Macbeth) and Owen Metsileng (Macbeth)
© Nicky Newman
The opera is set in modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo, with Macbeth as a military leader pillaging his way through the country. Setting Macbeth, whether it be Shakespeare or Verdi, with military jackets and AK47s has almost become a cliché at this point, but director Brett Bailey’s creative and surprisingly funny adaptation subverts all expectations. Lit in bright, garish colours, the set features a raised platform that becomes a banquet hall, a multinational corporation, and a laundromat in quick succession. Lady Macbeth first appears as a laundress, resentful of her work and greedily grasping at any chance to escape her mundane life – the return of her laundry bucket in the sleepwalking scene is both witty and poignant. Bailey frequently opts for aggressively contemporaneous references, complete with iPads and references to offshore tax havens, but the discrepancies with the sung Italian are neatly solved through the use of projected vernacular text. It’s certainly not a subtle production – Lady Macbeth twerks and body rolls her way across the stage during the brindisi in a bodycon minidress, the witches conjure up their visions via Skype, and white-masked men in suits alternately pull charred babies and raw minerals out of bags – but in times like these, who needs subtlety?

However, it’s important that this remains a production of Verdi’s opera, and happily the musical standards are on par with the theatrical ones. Arranged by Fabrizio Cassol, Verdi’s score is pruned to 100 minutes and 12 onstage musicians. By cutting Macduff’s aria and distributing his remaining lines among various members of the chorus, the entire evening focuses on the Macbeths and Banquo. Of the three principals, Otto Maidi’s Banquo had the most conventionally operatic voice, his resonant bass filling the hall with ease though his Italian left something to be desired. Owen Metsileng’s Macbeth began in a rather small-scale fashion, perhaps related to the fact that his other repertoire includes Germont and Marcello, but later used his lyric baritone with great control and skill. His excellent legato and textual nuance were shown off to great effect in an Italianate, highly moving "Pietà rispetto amore". Best of all, though, was soprano Nobulumko Mngxekeza, whose Lady Macbeth would be the envy of many a soprano worldwide. Wielding a massive soprano, she easily encompassed all of the roles vocal demands, from a ferociously loud high C in the concertato finale to act one to the coloratura in the banquet scene to a perfectly floated high D flat at the end of the Sleepwalking Scene. More importantly, she coloured her voice brilliantly, adopting a youthful, almost soubrette-like voice for her first duets with Macbeth, followed soon after by frightful dips into chest voice for "La luce langue". Mngxekeza was also the most magnetic stage presence in an already charismatic cast, positively commanding the hall in a dazzling array of lurid outfits.

The Witches © Nicky Newman
The Witches
© Nicky Newman

Belgian composer Fabrizio Cassol’s arrangement is no mere orchestral reduction – bookended by the entire cast singing "Patria oppressa", Cassol reworks, reorchestrates, and reorganizes the score while maintaining the basic structure of the opera. Most effective was his orchestration choices, often opting to change the harmonies and textures while the vocal line continues uninterrupted. The second verse of Lady Macbeth’s brindisi, for instance, was sung completely alone without orchestra, highlighting the precariousness and anxiety of the drama. Likewise, Cassol’s elimination of many of the cadences reduced any opportunity for applause and kept the show moving along. Best of all, though, was in his highlighting of Verdi’s rhythms – the unexpected addition of bongos to the sleepwalking scene, for instance, brought out the militaristic aspects of the orchestration that I had never appreciated before. This Macbeth is a complete integration of music, text, drama, and politics – kudos to Vancouver Opera for presenting it at this time.