Often, when we see Verdi’s Macbeth, it is his second version, which the composer revised and extended in 1865 for Paris, adding a ballet (obligatory for the French opera audience) and taking Macbeth’s death off stage. However, Buxton International Festival are currently staging Verdi’s first, 1847 Macbeth, written for the Teatro della Pergola, Florence, a theatre similar in size to the Edwardian jewel-box of Buxton’s own Opera House. This earlier version is a shorter, sharper work, which sees Macbeth dying on stage with one final aria to bewail his fate, just as actor David Garrick created his own death speech for the role in the 18th century (apparently believing Shakespeare’s ending insufficient). Verdi saw a London production which contained Garrick’s interpolated speech and a dancing stageful of witches; he innocently believed both elements part of Shakespeare’s original design, and in they went. Nevertheless, pushing his much-beleaguered librettist Piave for “fewer words, and concise style”, Verdi created a savagely intense drama which builds with deceptive simplicity and terrifying speed. Words and music both feel unnervingly direct, their ostensible clarity conspiring to produce complex psychological effects as each moment successively contributes to the dreadful climax: every scene feels almost too late to stop the disaster, as the Macbeths hurtle inexorably into blood, madness, and self-destruction.

Director Elijah Moshinsky, in his programme note, cites the “propulsive vitality” of this 1847 version, and by God, he delivers it on stage. Moshinsky’s brilliantly vivid production maintains a near-unbearable level of tension which grips, and holds us, until the opera’s last note. An unspecific, ageless setting never distracts us with gimmicky detailing, allowing the eternal horror of Macbeth’s treachery, and the psychological disintegration of both Macbeths, full scope on stage; we could be anywhere for this timeless tragedy, though Moshinsky gives an occasional nod to modernity with jackboots, the odd t-shirt and subtle hints of drug use. The witches are swathed in shapeless, hooded garments which partly obscure their faces while they alternately writhe and snap lifeless limbs as if possessed: colours are rigorously controlled, with black, blood-clot-reds, dark greens and bruised purples across the cast, while Lady Macbeth first appears in a bright, poison green gown. Russell Craig’s simple set design, with huge, brutalist walls leaning at a slight slant as if the whole world is askew, carefully coloured by Mike Gunning’s sensitively timed lighting, works cleverly for every scene: our only props are a couple of benches, a smattering of weapons, and the fatal crown. Onto this severe, unchanging landscape, video projections by Stanley Orwin-Fraser create the evil illusions of magic: in Macbeth’s second interview with the witches, we journey inside his brain, flying through nerves and neurons to discover an endless parade of skulls, interwoven with the biting snake of treachery, also dramatically tattooed onto Macbeth’s body.

The Northern Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Barlow, dived into Verdi’s score with gusto, picking out its insistent, demonic pulses with forensic accuracy in an authoritative account. Macbeth brims with Verdi’s passionately-held Risorgimento agenda, and Buxton International Festival Chorus did fabulous justice to his sumptuously patriotic choruses, pleading for divine mercy on their war-torn country.

Stephen Gadd inhabited Macbeth with chilling sensuality and greed; tempted and haunted by ambition from the very start, this Macbeth scarcely needs his wife to prompt him to murder, though his motivation is clearly caught up in their powerful sexual connection. Moshinsky even has Macbeth deliver “Pieta, rispetto, amore” while cradling Lady Macbeth’s corpse in his arms: a brilliant stroke. Gadd wielded his strong, luscious baritone with exquisite dramatic instinct, bringing it to the brink of whisper or snarl at key moments, regularly exploiting the “hooded, evil tone” on which Verdi insists. 

Verdi wrote that Lady Macbeth “should have something devilish” about her: Kate Ladner conveyed this in spades, with exceptional presence and strength as Lady Macbeth, using her voice as a true dramatic instrument to attack the role with vibrato, grit, and even an eerily childlike vulnerability as her mind unhinged. Ladner’s unearthly Sleepwalking Scene was set up by an immaculately delivered, deeply troubled duet between Helen Bailey as her nervous attendant Dama, and Richard Moore as the ever more terrified Doctor.

Oleg Tsibulko was heartbreaking as Banco, his endlessly generous bass filling the role with lyrical power, projecting a compassionate moral integrity as moving as it was doomed. Charlie Lambert was a charming Fleance, serenely composed on stage and blessed with a translucent, bell-like voice.

Jung Soo Yun’s Macduff delivered his terrifying aria of grief seated in the chorus line at the front of the stage, to make Macduff’s loss just one example of Scotland’s collective suffering: a fascinating idea from Moshinsky, though for me slightly diminishing Macduff’s unique power. When he finally confronts Macbeth in battle, compelling fight choreography by Philip D’Orléans brings Macbeth the closest I have ever seen him to winning before Macduff’s wild, final and successful stroke: we’re on the edge of our seats, spines tingling, right to the end.