Whatever its other shortcomings, the National Theaterʼs staging of Verdiʼs Macbeth – the final première of a busy season that featured 12 new productions – wins an award for Heaviest Metaphor. The opera opens with a small, cryptic object protruding just below the upper curtain. Over the course of the evening it gradually descends, becoming a giant rock that dominates the set, looming like a slow-motion meteor strike. As the closing notes sound, it finally hits the floor, adding a redundant thump to an overwrought performance.

The ponderous portent is emblematic of director Martin Čičvákʼs approach, with every idea overstated or hammered home like a rusty nail. Moreover, he seems intent on using every possible prop and gimmick – a spinning stage with a pit, video projection, odd costuming and choreography, melodramatic acting, an occasional sound effect. If it were all part of a unified artistic vision, it could have considerable impact. But lacking a core and any sense of finesse, his version of Macbeth comes off as a one-dimensional stew.

The Witches © Patrik Borecký
The Witches
© Patrik Borecký

It opens promisingly, with horned witches arising out of a carpet of bodies covering the stage and launching into wicked revelry. The women of the State Opera Chorus sound more like a church choir than a coven, and a horned toddler jumping into her motherʼs arms adds an incongruously cheery note. But the predictions for Macbeth and Banquo are delivered in suitably ominous tones, setting the stage for what should be an engrossing night of bloody intrigue. 

The suspense dissipates quickly in the second scene, with Lady Macbeth punctuating her dark scheming by waving around a knife like Jack the Ripper well before her husband arrives. Actually, itʼs hard to tell when Macbeth arrives, as heʼs onstage for the entire scene. Is he a weak pawn in his wifeʼs murderous plans, as he sits passively and apparently unseen? Or visible and malleable as clay, as she stands behind him and seems to knead him to her will? Whatever the case, thereʼs no drama when Macbeth finally takes the knife and marches off, zombie-like, to kill the king. He melts into and out of the scene, only taking firm, hypocritical shape in the rousing choral close beseeching God for justice.

Jolana Fogašová (Lady Macbeth) © Patrik Borecký
Jolana Fogašová (Lady Macbeth)
© Patrik Borecký

The framing of the production also gets off to a promising start. It takes place entirely in what appears to be a large brick factory or warehouse, a gloomy place littered with rags and newspapers occasionally used as props. With the main singers dressed mostly in black with silver studs, and the rest of the cast in contemporary clothing, itʼs like an industrial version of Shakespeare in the Park, with the audience watching a theater piece within a theater piece. But then the conceit gets ham-fisted, with video projections of the action onstage shown simultaneously on a scrim or the Damoclean rock. Like so much else about this pastiche of effects, itʼs a good idea overcooked.

Other elements just never coalesce. The trio of soldiers ordered to kill Banquo and his son are outfitted in clown make-up and jester costumes, then do flashy breakdancing routines as a prelude to the kill. Yes, breakdancing assassins. And no, it doesnʼt work. Nor does the music that sounds like an offstage radio to announce the kingʼs arrival, or the flurry of group hand motions that are a weak substitute for real choreography, or Malcolmʼs army advancing with empty arms, pretending to hold tree branches from Birnam Wood. Apparently the budget could accommodate a Siberian-sized meteor, but not a few sticks. 

Martin Bárta (Macbeth) © Patrik Borecký
Martin Bárta (Macbeth)
© Patrik Borecký

A production with so many structural weaknesses depends heavily on its cast, which was fortunately strong for the 13 June second première. The night belonged to the lead singers – baritone Martin Bárta and soprano Jolana Fogašová. Despite spending much of the opera supine or on his knees, Bárta managed to strike a noble tragic figure, with a commanding voice that dominated most of the scenes he was in. Fogašová was sensational, with a strong, piercing voice that was slightly hysterical from the start, and impressive acting chops. Even from the 13th row, the mad glint in her eyes was clearly visible. House singer Jaroslav Březina made the most of his brief appearance as Macduff, turning in a wrenching emotional reaction to discovering his slain children that drew a spontaneous burst of applause. 

Conductor Jiří Štrunc led a performance in the pit that went a long way toward compensating for the weaknesses onstage. Macbeth was Verdiʼs version of Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, a unified music drama that eschewed many of the conventions of mid-19th century Italian opera. The score is like a soundtrack that mirrors and propels the tragedy, and Štrune brought it to life with vivid color and tremendous energy. The State Opera Chorus, its angelic tone notwithstanding, was equally good, crisp and dynamic throughout, and razor-sharp in the a cappella passages that close the first act. 

Perhaps Čičvák deserves more credit than a cranky critic is willing to grant him. A German tourist visiting Prague, an opera fan who also took in Janáčekʼs From the House of the Dead, made a point of stopping by as she was leaving Macbeth to declare it “exceptional good!” An English play, set to Italian music, performed by Czechs and Slovaks 170 years later, thrills a German viewer – by any measure, thatʼs an accomplishment.