Verdi’s Macbeth was the first opera to be performed at the first Edinburgh International Festival in 1947, so it was absolutely fitting to welcome the Teatro Regio Torino with conductor Gianandrea Noseda to perform this famous Scottish opera as part of a short residency for the festival’s 70th birthday.

Dalibor Jenis (Macbeth) © Franco Lannino
Dalibor Jenis (Macbeth)
© Franco Lannino

Director Emma Dante augments the considerable operatic forces with actors from her own company Sud Costa Occidentale and students from the Scuola dei Mestieri dello Spettacolo del Teatro Bionda di Palermo to produce a visually arresting Macbeth with a spectacular combination of singers, dancers and actors, lit dramatically by Cristian Zucaro looking more like a sparkly West End show.  

Dante’s vision of witches, impregnated by well-endowed satyrs in an orgy of procreation under a huge sheet in Act 1 and mass birthing into cauldrons in Act 3 was well thought through, contrasting with Lady Macbeth’s barrenness, a queen unable to leave an heir. In Carmine Maringola’s striking design, props were minimal but effective, with flown in crowns made of spears and a series of golden thrones increasing in height. Costumes were heavy and sumptuous for the principals, soldierly or black-cloaked for the male chorus and the wig department must have been on overdrive to cope with the vigorously tossed, wild tousled hair of the witches and Lady Macbeth’s waist-long tresses.

The big set pieces will stay in the memory: Duncan is paraded on a single high golden throne with circus tumblers preceding him and then, after his murder, his body ceremonially washed in the centre of a grotesque procession of Pietà, as crucifixes spontaneously light up. The Brindisi and appearance of Banquo’s ghost was best, the thrones locking together to become a giant golden staircase which Macbeth ascends in his scarlet robe, but the lower seats are removed, leaving him a stranded figure, the robe becoming Lady Macbeth’s train.   Macduff’s family are laid out corpses, and there is plenty of stylised sword choreography down to the last tableau as Macbeth dies on stage in the original 1847 ending.

Teatro Regio Torino's <i>Macbeth</i> © Franco Lannino
Teatro Regio Torino's Macbeth
© Franco Lannino

One problem with having a large number of dancers and actors is the mismatch between eye and ear. Opera choruses are called on to do many things, but to swell the physical action, dancers and actors are able to embellish a production, as they successfully did here, yet the sheer numbers of non-singers on stage made the choruses sound underpowered at times, the early witches in particular. Another problem is the devolvement of movement from the chorus, here complete in the exile chorus “Patria oppressa”, the singers stock still in black cloaks arranged choral society style at the very back of the stage against a black drop with only their faces visible.

Dalibor Jenis was a workmanlike Macbeth, gaining in power as the performance progressed, his “Pietà, rispetto, amore” in the final act a triumph. Anna Pirozzi had a tremendous stage presence as Lady Macbeth, far more evil than her husband, wearing blood-red silk fingerless mittens from the start. She certainly hit the high notes rising over the tremendous choruses with ease, although there was a lack of depth in quieter places. Murdering sleep, Dante has her die of insomnia and she tries to nap unsuccessfully on a series of hospital beds which follow her around the stage in her sleepwalking scene. Marko Mimica’s Banquo was deeply sonorous, but Piero Pretti’s Macduff took the vocal honours of the evening, outstanding in “Ah, la paterna mano” as he lifted the corners of the shrouds covering the corpses littering the stage searching for his family.

Teatro Regio Torino's <i>Macbeth</i> © Franco Lannino
Teatro Regio Torino's Macbeth
© Franco Lannino

In the pit, there was sparkle aplenty as Noseda drew thrilling playing from the orchestra, with particularly bright woodwind and beefy brass, although enthusiasm spilled over into some rather fast tempos in places. It’s a complex opera with onstage and offstage choruses as well as an offstage band with its wonderfully reedy dark sinister apparition music. Noseda steered Verdi’s richly black score perfectly, building to an exciting close.

We should celebrate Dante’s flow of ideas, yet they started to get in the way with the witches’ continuous head tossing and jerky twitching hands – so effective at the start – eventually becoming tiresome. There were a few moments of unintended comedy, Birnam Wood a forest of prickly pear cactus and the just visible toes of the sheeted ‘follow-me’ bed performers as they pinioned the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth stage centre, their wheels veering perilously close to the orchestra pit. The allegorical skeletal war horse ridden by the Macbeths was visually arresting, but I swear it was guffawing as it left the stage.

This anniversary Macbeth is a bit like an opulent birthday cake – wonderful to look at, but you have to get through a lot of rich icing to reach the heart.