Luke Styles, Shakespeare (adapted by Ted Huffman)
Glyndebourne at Linbury Studio Theatre, 9 September 2015
Duncan/Second Murderer – John Mackenzie-Lavansch
Malcolm – Michael Wallace
Sergeant/First Murderer – David Shaw
Lennox/Third Murderer – James Geer
Ross – Benjamin Cahn
Macbeth – Ed Ballard
Banquo – Alessandro Fisher
Lady Macbeth – Aidan Coburn
Macduff – Richard Bignall
Fleance – Luke Saint
Lady Macduff/Porter – Andrew Davies
Macduff’s son – Xavier Murtagh
Director – Ted Huffman
Designer – Kitty Callister
Lighting Designer – David Manion
members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor – Jeremy Bines
Lucky the opera composer of today, able to set classic drama (Shakespeare obviously, in this case) free from pressure to conform with musical conventions or expectations. Whilst Luke Styles and librettist Ted Huffman might have been limited in terms of duration and scale by the Glyndebourne chamber opera circumstances for which the opera was commissioned, there’s no obvious musical hinderance to their use of any form or mode of expression compared to many historic attempts.
The precedents, after all, are hardly enouraging: the C19th number-opera form comes close to destroying any musico-dramatic individuality in Verdi’s Macbeth; A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest both engendered settings as contrived and artificial as any C19th archetype; and, post-expressionist in the wrong way, Reimann’s Lear bores the audience by mistaking sonic violence for dramatic intensity.
For this new work, premiered in 2015 at the Glyndbourne Festival and receiving its London premiere with a single sold-out performance, Styles has taken the approach of a loose mix of accompanied recitative and arioso, arguably a better framework with its Monteverdian precedent than any other historic musico-formal approach.
The music has his typically sparse instrumental groupings and themes which are more fragmentary than aphoristic, all welded into a coherent, easy to grasp musical structure. Take for example the careful use of timbres and textures for dramatic exposition (flute and harp duet for Lady Macbeth, the a cappella wordless chorus under Macbeth’s soliloquies, a descending scale for an assassination motif). Throughout the 75 minute work, there is a contrast in moods that is not just a Pavlovian reaction to narrative events; the choice of a simple held chord deepens the emotional focus at key moments, better than any outpouring through predictable decoration.
Examples of Styles’ previous works such as Shades of Forward and Bellagio by Water will give some idea of the sounds of Macbeth, as does the extract from a previous Glyndebourne opera, Darkness – Waking Shadow.
The staging consisted of green grassy matting and a handful of furniture props; the orchestra was located at the rear of the stage, providing ideal balance; and subtitles, not always needed with the quality of diction many of the singers achieved, projected in large letters on the rear wall (similar to the excellent subtitles for Hindemith’s Ein Landarzt at the GSMD in June 2015. A gentle nod to alienation had singers sitting at the sides of the stage, even when not taking “crowd” roles. In keeping with some recent stagings of Shakespeare, the cast (young and and mostly recent members of Glyndebourne Festival Chorus) was all male; though with no attempt in the female roles at femininity other than in the external guise – quite different in approach from the “authentic” all-male cast for Twelth Night at the Globe and also from modern readings such as Propeller Theatre Company’s production of Henry V.
Huffman had shortened the play by excluding the witches, which placed a stark focus on human flaws and greed as explanations for the tragedy. More puzzlingly, and causing some confusion in the audience around me, Malcolm’s final words in the play after Macbeth’s death were reset for Macbeth to sing, being hailed as King of Scotland himself. The music here switched genre into an Adams-y set of major chord arpeggios, but given that the remainder of the play had been adapted “straight” there seemed no particular logic for this altered ending.
Ed Ballard was thoroughly secure through the vocal range of his large title role, conveying a brooding menace by careful shading of the voice rather than any histrionics. John Mackenzie-Lavansch set a mood of authority from the start as Duncan, making one wish that the librettist had kept him alive too. Aidan Coburn bravely eschewed the use of head voice for the high-lying role of Lady Macbeth; while the tone coarsened slightly, it was dramatically consistent with the staging. Jeremy Bines and the small group of players from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, were superlative in maintaing the pace and balance.
If there’s a slight lack of enthusiasm, it’s that even with the shortening of the play, too much felt crammed in to allow the music room to breath and develop. As such, the music often seemed held in check and yet stretched slightly thin. Both the composer and librettist have talked about this current work being an initial version for a full-length opera and maybe the extra length would do more justice to their creative talents.