Reviews, News and Commentary

Macbeth : Passion, Pain and a  Triumph for Netia Jones

Reviewed by Malcolm Calder

Banquo (Wade Kernot) and Macbeth (Phillip Rhodes) as young potential kings hover.  Photo Grant Triplow.


By Giuseppe Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave

Directed and designed by Netia Jones

Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre, Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland

Until 25 September


St James Theatre, Pōneke, Wellington, 5, 7 and 9 October

Isaac Theatre Royal, Ōtautahi, Christchurch, 22 and 22 October

Reviewed by Malcolm Calder

While Shakespeare’s Macbeth may have been initially published 400 years ago, followed by Verdi’s opera more than 100 years later, its prevalent themes of political ambition, corruption and tyranny remain universal.

And while Shakespeare may have conceived these original themes in Scotland, Verdi saw them as being just as relevant in a 19th century Italy moving inexorably towards a realignment of its own political future.  In fact, while breaking new ground away from the hitherto largely romantic nature of Italian opera, Verdi himself urged that Shakespeare’s original psychological insights were not lost in the opera.

He would likely be just as emphatic in the 21st century where the increasingly confrontational nature of national politics, the branding, brandishing and blamefulness of international geopolitics and even the chattering class’s tabloid hypotheses about the future of the British Monarchy demonstrate their relevance.

Netia Jones has certainly not lost sight of them in her new realisation of Macbeth for NZ Opera.   In something of a coup for the company, her services as director, set designer and video artist result in a visual feast that is a  wonderment to behold.  Her brilliantly innovative staging of this dark, twisted and internecine world manages to be contemporary while remaining true to the power of both Shakespeare and to Verdi.  It is a triumph. 

Using sensitively created digital imagery she creates a world that resembles a black and white movie and then overlays it with bursts and splashes of red until the stage fairly drips with blood.  But her sensitivity remains throughout with the stark and unexpected introduction of cyan highlights underscoring relevant dramatic moments.

The highlight of her creation is unquestionably the Birnham Wood scene.  Here she somehow manages to generate the illusion of tripling the numbers and the movement on stage, then creating near-documentary level imagery and mixing darkness with light in ways that that reach visceral levels.

NZ Opera has long been applauded for nurturing and assisting the development of many New Zealand artists and in this Macbeth each principal and sub-principal is sung by a New Zealander.

The sole exception is Amanda Echalaz, the South African soprano now resident in New York, who has risen to world prominence.  It is easy to see why after her astonishing “La luce langue” in Act I.  As Lady Macbeth she is fierce, formidable and manipulative. In a bravura performance she is the perfect foil for Macbeth, driven by power and greed that is ultimately futile and meaningless.

Phillip Rhodes appeared totally wrung out and exhausted as Macbeth after a marathon performance in his first principal role.  His brooding, troubled presence permeates everything and his eventual unravelling demonstrates a quality to his characterisation that only adds to its depth.  By way of an aside, Phillip would also have been delighted that his son Logan appeared as one of the young Future Kings.

Wade Kernot is near-spectral as Banquo and looms large as a Ghost, while Jared Holt is a standout as Macduff.  Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono gives us a strong Malcolm who returns and is crowned as King of Scotland; while a compassionate and always in control Morag Atchison is the Lady in Waiting who knows a lot more than she lets on.

But it is the witches that provide the supernatural underpinnings of Macbeth, giving it an omnipresent tone and a structure.  First hinted at when they vanish through walls in the opening scene, the witches are played by the whole chorus and they ‘steam, storm and splutter’ as well as ‘hubble and bubble’.  They morph into crowd scenes, become party-goers, workers, exiles and troopers and then revert to witches once again.  They are everywhere and they dominate the stage and this production. 

Brad Cohen (Conductor) has noted that Verdi’s music was created to ‘terrify, not to soothe’ in his programme notes when conducting NZ Opera’s 1998 Macbeth.  It still does and, in Netia Jones’ setting, even more so.

Congratulations NZ Opera.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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