Bloch’s Macbeth

Macbeth [First UK staging]

Macbeth – George van Bergen
Lady Macbeth – Katherine Rohrer
Macduff – Carl Gombrich
Lady Macduff – Louise Kemeny
Duncan – Ryland Davies
Banquo – Richard Rowe
Malcolm – Hal Brindley
Lennox – Woon Kim
A Porter – Ed Davidson
An Old Man – Matthew Quirk
A Murderer – Rory Mulchrone
A Servant – Simon Hall
First Witch – Mimi Kroll
Second Witch – Jessica Blackstone
Third Witch – Ella Jackson
Son of Macduff – Laura Murphy
Apparition – Alicia Bennett

Chorus & Orchestra of University College Opera
Charles Peebles

John Ramster – Director
Bridget Kimak – Designer
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 March, 2009
Venue: Bloomsbury Theatre, London

Over the years, University College Opera has presented some notable UK premieres, but few of these have been more timely than that of Ernest Bloch’s “Macbeth”, which – other than an abridged concert performance in 1975 – has remained unheard here since its premiere in Paris almost a century ago.

More is the pity as, some four decades after that Paris premiere, Bloch made his own English version of the libretto – no doubt conscious that, having become a US citizen, the opera’s future lay on that side of the Atlantic. Even so, what revivals there have been were of the original French text – itself an expert conflation by Edmond Fleg (who was later to provide the libretto for Enescu’s masterpiece “Oedipe”) of the most uninhibitedly dramatic play from Shakespeare’s maturity: one that concentrates entirely on the noose which is perceived as drawing ever more tightly around the main protagonists.

In devising a staging, John Ramster has justifiably recognised the opera’s basis in a symbolist rather than a naturalistic treatment. The actual set – devoid of all except the most basic props – evinced a luminous, even phosphorescent quality enhanced by the wide range of lighting shades and intensities employed by Jake Wiltshire. Towards the rear of the stage, a large circular cut-out provided for a convenient yet scenic means of entry and exit – before that space was occupied by a red sphere in a telling visual analogy to the opera’s climax. Bridget Kimak’s costumes were rather less distinctive, but setting “Macbeth” as a wartime tragedy does have precedents and rarely, if ever, detracted from the play’s essence of deceit and revenge. The costumes for the witches, moreover, presented them as courtesans, nurses and sirens in a manner apposite to the immediate dramatic context.

The cast itself was commensurate with the best of recent UCO productions. As Macbeth, George van Bergen had the measure of a role as exacting in its interpretative depth as in its technical demands. Neither ruthless enough to see through his own ambitions nor evil enough not to regret his actions, his is a seminal dramatic creation such as Bloch’s characterisation often makes the more absorbing. Katherine Rohrer was hardly less assured as Lady Macbeth, projecting this scheming yet increasingly vulnerable consort with due veracity – not least the ‘mad scene’, whose setting of a near-intuitive vocal line against a sparse yet pungent orchestral context is a dramatic masterstroke on the part of the composer. Ryland Davies provided an affecting cameo as Duncan, his burnished tenor having lost little of its authority, while Carl Gombrich projected the righteousness that becomes anger of Macduff with no mean eloquence. Richard Rose was sympathetic as Banquo, while Louise Kemeny and Laura Murphy were touchingly complemented as Lady Macduff and her daughter. The supporting roles were generally well taken – not least Ed Davidson as a put-upon and unintentionally humorous Porter.

As to the music, this is easy to admire yet difficult to assess. By the time he had completed “Macbeth” in 1906, Bloch had clearly taken stock of the various currents prevalent in Europe at that time. Thus the twin influences of Richard Strauss and Debussy are thoroughly absorbed without yet effecting an overly personal synthesis; the chromatic and the modal are brought together in such a way that they often cancel each other out rather than suggesting – let alone establishing – an individual way forward. On the other hand it could be argued that Bloch, among the significant composers of his generation, was the one whose idiom is most audibly the outcome of the influences with which he came into contact. From this vantage, the eclecticism of “Macbeth” is demonstrably the harbinger of where its composer was headed and, as such, a crucial stage on a journey of perpetual travel rather than eventual arrival.

There are problems, too, with the dramatic pacing. The witches’ Prologue is oddly temperate in its portrayal, and while the first act – taking the narrative up to the slaying of Duncan – is successful, the second act’s contrasting of the dissolution at court with the (often omitted) murder of Lady Macduff and daughter feels too starkly drawn. Nor is the third act’s denouement ideally expansive – hardly the fault of Charles Peebles, who throughout the evening drew playing of great resolve and not a little finesse from the UCO orchestra – overtaxed only in the treacherous writing for lower brass.

If “Macbeth” seems unlikely to transcend its cult status, its intrinsic quality is such that it should not have waited so long for a UK staging. Whatever the rough edges, UCO has done justice to a work that deserves to take a place among the more significant operas from the turn of the twentieth-century.

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