Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Murder and Melodrama in Verdi's Macbeth, 25 May 2008

When Verdi composed Macbeth, his first opera based on a Shakespeare play, his intention was to create a work of 'extravagance and originality'. This event, organised in collaboration with Opera North, explored the relationship between Shakespeare's play and Verdi's opera, and more specifically the relationship between music, words and gestures, in a day of presentation, performance and discussion.

Two presentations opened up some issues and moments from the opera that were explored during the rest of the day. In her paper 'Pious Confessions, Dancing Witches, and Bloodstained Hands: Shakespeare, Verdi, Opera and the Melodramatic Aesthetic' Prof Julie Sanders (University of Nottingham) offered a discussion of the opera as an accretive text, setting it in its much wider theatrical context from 17th-century England, through 18th- and 19th-century Europe, to modern-day China - and focusing on the symbolic significance of hands in the work. She drew on romantic theories and translations of Shakespeare's play from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the iconic performances and stagings of David Garrick, before turning to the agency of Verdi's opera in late 20th-century Chinese operatic adaptations of the play, including a kunju adaptation (Bloody or Bloodstained Hands) which was performed at the 1986 Shakespeare Festival in Shanghai. In her presentation '"A Fusion of Music and Drama": Vocal and Physical Gesture in Verdi's Macbeth', Dr Susan Rutherford (University of Manchester) focused on mid-19th-century perceptions of opera's interactions between word, gesture and music. In particular, the musical devices employed in Macbeth's Act I aria and in Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene were examined in relation to the physical gestures they suggested, and the specific characteristics of the singers who premiered these roles were discussed. Although in very different ways from Wagner, Verdi was clearly interested in fusing musical and dramatic effects in a convincing whole, in which the physical (or memory of the physical) was inseparable from the music.

In the afternoon, Joe Austin (assistant director at Opera North), with assistant conductor/repetiteur Martin Pickard and singers Simon Thorpe and Yvonne Howard, led a practical exploration of the ways in which a modern-day opera company approaches such a melodramatic work, with the example of Tim Albery's production (currently part of the Opera North season). The very different approaches required for Verdi's opera and Shakespeare's play, and the contrasting pace and location of the tensions, were illustrated with comparative performances of the scene between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth before the murder of Duncan. The need to modify the opera for modern taste was discussed. For example, the desire to understand the psychological reasons behind Lady Macbeth's behaviour (and resist the 19th-century tendency to emphasise her monstrousness) was addressed by introducing Macbeth as the (physical, silent) focus of her Act I aria. Joe also explained how the production sometimes worked against the grain of the music in the interests of modifying some of the more melodramatic features of the work: notably, the abrupt juxtaposition of contrasting moods between (and sometimes within) individual numbers was occasionally smoothed by continuing the gestural language of the first mood across the musical break. Wider discussion considered the political context of the premiere (1847) in a Europe on the brink of revolution, the contrasting French situation for the revised version (1865), an earlier French operatic Macbeth in the 1820s, and the broader concept of cultural transfer. It was striking how modern scholarly interest in the gestural language of actors and singers - an aspect of 19th-century performance practice that is difficult to trace - contrasted with the interest among modern practitioners in the psychological motivation of the characters.

The day concluded with a short workshop led by Joyce Henderson to explore the nature of the relationships in melodrama between the body and emotion and meaning, gesture and voice, and actor and audience.

Participants: Julie Sanders (University of Nottingham), Susan Rutherford (University of Manchester); Opera North: Joe Austin (stage director), Martin Pickard (repetiteur), Yvonne Howard (mezzo-soprano), Simon Thorpe (baritone); Joyce Henderson


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