This is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and to commemorate this the Welsh National Opera has chosen to present three pieces that were inspired by Shakespeare plays – Verdi’s Macbeth, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate (The Taming of the Shrew) and Andre Tchaikovsky’s The Merchant of Venice. The last of these was written by the pianist before he died prematurely and is very much in the idiom of classical music that was so prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s. Unfortunately, they did not bring The Merchant of Venice to Oxford so I can only report that people I know who have seen it think it is a fine work of the second rank (but not second rate!).
The new production of Verdi’s Macbeth got mixed reviews, but I personally thought it was good, responsive to both the text and the music, provocative and true to the spirit of Verdi’s intentions. As so often, the action was visually updated to the contemporary world of war and dictatorships; there were a lot of flags of St Andrew about; and some people at the interval were annoyed by all this. I thought that this approach worked and clearly brought out the links of this well-known tale to the contemporary world of dark-hearted power struggles, power grabbing and the inevitable destruction and suffering for the population. Director Oliver Mears and conductor Andriy Yurkevych took a deliberate approach to the pacing of the opera and its action. This is a contemplative, provocative and very dark production. Luis Cansino as Macbeth and Milos Sebestyen was Banquo were particularly telling in their parts, inhabiting the roles both dramatically and vocally with great force and also considerable beauty of tone. Bruce Sledge came into his own in Macduff’s big scene near the end; and Miriam Murphy, taking over from Mary Elizabeth Williams, was vocally dazzling throughout, especially in the powerful Sleep Walking Scene. I would deem this production a considerable success in every way, especially musically. Yurkevych was as much a star of the evening as any of the singers. The orchestra and chorus were brilliant and totally with him, completely responsive at every moment. This is his debut with the Welsh National Opera and I hope they are planning to ask him back. He is currently Music Director of the Polish National Opera in Warsaw, among other things. Lucky Warsaw!