Review: Power Verdi – Stoyanov, Valayre Mesmerizing in Berlin Staatsoper “Macbeth”, April 24, 2009

I am reporting on opera in Berlin, a city celebrating and reflecting on the 20 years since the Wall between East and West Berlin was torn down. The subsequent reunfication of Germany had many consequences, including massive pressures on governments and taxpayers to shoulder the costs of integrating East Germany, that had lagged behind the West by most economic measures, into the new Germany.

For opera-goers there were less cosmic, but certainly important, consequences of the Wall’s eradication. Whereas for almost 45 years, two of Berlin’s three major opera companies (the Komische Oper Berlin and the Staatsoper) had been behind the Iron Curtain in East Berlin (with only the Deutsche Oper in West Berlin), all three companies are now within the city restored in 1999 as Germany’s capital. Now all opera companies serve a Berlin that no longer is subdivided into East and West – and all three claim the historic subsidies that major opera companies receive from German governments.

In many ways, the current year has something of the feel of an “end of an era”, at least for the two Berlin opera companies that are presenting operas that I am attending and reviewing. I will have some specific comments on this era’s end impression when I post my review on the late Götz Friedrich’s 1993 production of Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera” at Deutsche Oper.

But the subject of this post is the 1990 Staatsoper production of Verdi’s “Macbeth”, that was conceived and realized during a time roughly mid-way between the Wall’s fall and the present day. The post begins with another episode in my ongoing discussion of the state of Verdi singing in the new millenium.

Readers of this website have heard my refutations of the contemporary axiom that there no longer exist singers capable of singing the great Verdi roles. As I wander throughout the world of opera performance, I have been able to cite abundant examples of singers who are just as good as their predecessors in any “Golden Age” that one asserts existed in the past.

The Berlin Staatsoper “Macbeth” had a cast of which any company would have been proud in any era, led by Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov in the title role. He joined French soprano (usually identified as Parisian soprano) Sylvie Valayre, who has established Lady Macbeth as one of her signature roles and has dominated the history of the Staatsoper production.

(German opera companies, unlike many of their American counterparts, commission production photos only for new productions, and do not have pictures taken of casts or sets for most “revivals”. Therefore, to the best of my knowledge, no pictures of Stoyanov in the Macbeth costume exist. Since Valayre has been associated with the production since its debut in 2000, the brilliant Ruth Walz photos in the over-the-top Andrea Schmidt-Futterer costumes are frequently seen.)

In a recent review of a different production of “Macbeth”, imported from the Zurich Oper by the San Francisco Opera (See Hampson Transcends Quirky “Macbeth” in S. F. – November 18, 2007), I remarked at the my own experiences with the pairings of Macbeths and Lady Macbeths in performances I attended over the past 42 years. Although I have experienced wondrous performances from singers in both roles, I believe that none were better matched than Stoyanov and Valayre.

Stoyanov, just turning 40, has matured as a major Verdi baritone, with the requisite power throughout his range, and the dramatic flair that this part requires. One expects him soon to move to the first rank of dramatic baritones.

He and his Bulgarian colleague tenor Kamen Chanev (whose performance in Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera” at Deutsche Oper the next evening I will report on soon), are two of the latest examples of the large Verdian voices that Bulgaria has produced.

Countrymen and women of Stoyanov and Chanev I have seen singing Verdi include basso Boris Christoff (my first Fiesco in “Simon Boccanegra) and Stoyanov’s teacher basso Boris Ghiuselev (whom I saw as Fiesco, and who also was my first Archibaldo in Montemezzi’s “L’Amore dei Tre Re” and my first Giorgio in Bellini’s “I Puritani”.)

Their Bulgarian colleagues I have seen sing Verdi include Ghena Dmitrova, Stefka Evstatieva, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Raina Kabaivanska and Anna Tomowa-Sintow. This is a formidable list of major opera singers of the past six decades, all from a country of 7.6 million, which is not quite three quarters of the population of Los Angeles County in California.

[Below: Vladimir Stoyanov, here as Enrico in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”‘; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph.]

Stoyanov’s Lady, Valayre, has “owned” the role in this production, and her physical performance, as opposed to the singing itself, will later receive the paragraph of its own that it deserves.  Californians know Valayre for her Puccini, in the title role of “Madama Butterfly” at San Francisco Opera in 1997 and earlier this year in the title role of “Tosca” for the San Diego Opera (see my review at Grimsley Memorable in San Diego Opera’s Quasi-Traditional “Tosca” – January 27, 2009).

But Butterfly and Tosca are not the right roles to introduce Valayre’s extraordinary skills. It is in two of the early Verdi roles, Lady Macbeth and Abigaille in “Nabucco” (which she is scheduled to sing next year at San Diego Opera), for which she has achieved deserved fame.

I have never heard the difficult passages that Verdi wrote for Lady Macbeth sung so beautifully.  It is ultimately one of the great, highly dramatic bel canto roles, such as Donizetti wrote for the title role of “Lucrezia Borgia” or for Elisabetta in “Roberto Devereux” and that Verdi wrote for Abigaille in “Nabucco” or Giselda in “I Lombardi”, with leaping intervals and the mixture of coloratura passages with highly dramatic passages that they use to define strong-willed women.

Verdi’s off-the-cuff remarks tend to be taken more seriously than I believe they should, and the dictum attributed to him – that the voice of Lady Macbeth should sound ugly – seems to be taken literally by too many singers. Valayre clearly demonstrates that every note that the Lady sings, from the legato of the haunting La luce langue to the festive Si colmi il calice,  can be sung expressively and with great beauty. It is a joy to hear her.

However, were one only to go to opera to hear the singing, opera companies would likely concentrate its efforts on “concert performances”, where principals stand behind music stands, perhaps facing each other in a spirited duet. Opera goers expect a physical production, and stage direction and matching costumes to display the opera’s dramatic core.

Staatsoper’s production of “Macbeth” mixed the concepts of Director (and departed Staatoper intendant) Peter Mussbach, widely acknowledged as the loser of a power struggle with Staatsoper Musical Director Daniel Barenboim, with the sets and lighting of Erich Wonder.

Wonder’s stage was a fading, nine-year old plum-colored unit set, molded so that a mound was at the front center of the stage into which a covered hole in audience view was cut, which opened at times that the Director regarded as compelling to permit characters to ascend onto the stage completely or partially. (I have not seen a production photograph that effectively displays the contours of the unit set. The blue-lit photograph shown below gives no sense of how the set appears to the audience.)

Three other areas of the unit set were important to the stage action. A moulded plum-colored staircase leading to a side door was often used at stage left. Towards the back, the stage ramped down so that groups of characters, such as the witches, would disappear as if moving down a hill. And most remarkably, a plum-colored runway surrounded the orchestra, permitting Lady Macbeth or the witches the opportunity to move past the orchestra to be close to the audience as they might in a Las Vegas floorshow.

For those who have precise ideas of how twelfth century Scotland should look, one would expect some to balk at the description of the set so far. It is clear that Mussbach had no intention of presenting “Macbeth” as anything remotely based in reality. Perhaps I am over-thinking what he tried to portray, but I believe he set out to emphasize the surreal elements in the piece from the beginning.

What, after all, is this story that Anglophones revere? A minor nobleman suddenly has delusions that supernatural beings are  predicting that he will become King of Scotland. (Yes, Banquo supposedly hears witch prophecies too, but given Macbeth’s later obsession with Banquo’s existence, even Banquo’s presence beside him could be part of Macbeth’s delusions.)

Macbeth’s ambitious wife, hearing him relate these delusions, encourages him to murder his king and usurp the throne. Unfortunately for them, their actions cause additional and now fatal delusions on the husband’s part and mortal feelings of guilt on the wife’s.

This sordid tale is related to Anglophones in two formats, both of which present their own form of surreal expression. First, it is presented as the Bard’s play, spoken in the archaic English of the Elizabethan era, often in poetic iambic pentameter. Second, it is presented as Verdi’s dramatic opera, sung in Italian.

Thus, I suspect Mussbach might well have approached the opera with the conviction that a surreal story, presented traditionally in surreal formats, deserves to be presented non-traditionally in ever more surreal formats. Set designer Wonder, who Californians will remember for a creditable stage setting for San Francisco Opera’s otherwise marred 2003 production of Janacek’s “Kat’a Kabanova”, has contributed to the production’s fantastic foundation. A “hole in the mound” is prominent, from which key characters emerge – Macbeth and Banquo wandering in the witch country, ghostly apparitions, and the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth.

But, to really achieve surreality, one can, as Mussbach did, call in costume designer Andrea Schmidt-Futterer.

In a previous review, I outlined what I believe is Schmidt-Futterer’s lack of success in achieving a fan base in California, where three of her costume design schema – for productions of Wagner’s “Parsifal” and “Fliegende Hollaender” and for Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” – met considerable audience disapproval (See Zurich and San Francisco: A Tale of Two “Forzas”). In fact, I cannot imagine her costumes being commissioned or rented by two of the three major California opera companies, and, if at all, only warily by the third.

But Schmidt-Futterer, at least at the beginning of the millenium when this “Macbeth” premiered, was unquestionably a “go to” person for wildly extravagant images. Two of her familiar themes appear in this production. One, the futuristic (or, perhaps faux futurustic) costumes worn by Macduff and Malcolm, that seem to me inspired by Aenne Wilkomm’s costumes in Fritz Lang’s 1930s film Metropolis (or perhaps her own costume designs from “Hollaender”). The robotic characters that populate Macbeth’s court and Malcolm’s army seem to belong to this future-as-imagined-85-years-ago conceptualization.

But it is not Macduff’s or Malcolm’s Tin Woodsman duds that give this production its notoriety. It is the group of costumes worn by Valayrie’s Lady Macbeth and the witches that one chiefly remembers.

I believe that had Schmidt-Futterer presented her ideas for the Lady Macbeth costumes to the Academy Award winning costume designers Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel for the hit film Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, that they would have been considered too “over the top” to include even in that story of the extravagant lives of Australian drag queens.

The other remarkable costume image were the witches. Surely there are persons who are certain that Scotland indeed had (perhaps still has) witches, but there is no evidence, at least not likely to impress the editorial staff of Scientific American, as to what twelfth century witches might have looked like, so this production’s premise, that witches have masculine white faces and handlebar mustaches, works as well as any.

[Below: Some of the witches in Peter Mussbach’s production of Verdi’s “Macbeth”; edited image, based on a Ruth Walz photograph from Boston Staatsoper.]

It is, of course, the music of the witches, first heard in the orchestra under the baton of Julien Salemkour, and then the ladies themselves, who introduce the opera. A few witches first appear on the darkened stages, with an occasional face being lit by small lights. In time, we will become aware that the witches include all of the women of the Staatsoper Chorus.

The plum-colored mound closest to the audience yields Banquo (Christof Fischesser) and Stayanov’s Macbeth, the latter having his first opportunity to display the elegant phrasing and beautiful well-rounded  baritone, confirming that the opera’s lead role is in competent hands.

[Below: Erich Wonder’s unit set for “Macbeth”, showing the mound with entrance to hole in foreground. Not seen is the molded staircase at stage right; edited image, based on a photograph for Berlin Staatsoper.]

The men, their lives changed by the witches’ intervention in their affairs, are gone. A horizontal curtain rises to reveal a red background. We experience Valayre as Lady Macbeth. She wears Schmidt-Futterer’s first of four distinct Lady Macbeth costumes – this a fantastic mixture of white on white with a wild white wig.

Valayre introduces us to her aggressive, physical performance which matches Verdi’s leaping music. Valayre and Verdi combine to concoct as manic a combination as one can imagine in the operatic medium, with a costume that accentuates the mania. Her husband returns, and she plots Duncan’s death with him.

When Verdi’s royal processional music plays, there is no parade of courtiers. Instead, Duncan, alone, staggers up the front mount, while Macbeth and Lady Macbeth crouch on the arched stairway at stage left. Soon Stoyanov’s Macbeth has left to do the deed, and returns barechested and smeared in blood for his duet with his Lady.

[Below: Lady Macbeth (Sylvie Valayre) counsels her spouse; edited image, based on a Ruth Walz photograph for the Hamburg Staatsoper.]

With Duncan dead and the Macbeths maneuvering themselves into royal power, Macbeth sends out assassins to kill Banquo and his progeny. Fischesser’s Banquo dispatches his son Fleance to safety, then ascends the stairway to be axed from behind by his assassin.

[Below: Banquo (Christof Fischesser) hugs his son Fleance, who flees to safety as Banquo is murdered; edited image, based on a  Poelitz photograph.]

Once the Macbeths are Scotland’s reigning monarchs, Valayre wears the second of the Schmidt-Futterer gowns, a purplish-red extravaganza with arresting hairpiece.  The Scottish nobility are curious robotic characters, whose style of dress is obviously less flamboyant than that of their queen’s.

[Below: Lady Macbeth (Sylvie Valayre) surrounded by her courtiers; edited image, based on a Berlin Staatsoper photograph.]

Lady Macbeth’s third costume has the appearance (pictures, alas, apparently unavailable) of a gold satin gown with spaghetti straps, accented by yet another provocative head-covering. She is in a skull cap that from either side sprouts feathery appendages. Only the lack of wings prevented Valayre’s Lady Macbeth from looking like a giant hawk moth. Valayre was positioned on the runway just above the audience’s first row and presented a rousing performance. Had Stephan Elliott, producer of the aforementioned film Priscilla seen her, he might have reconceived some of the scenes intended as homage to the outer limits of feminine fashion and performance.

After the great scene in which Macduff assembles his forces, in which the Macduff (Stephan Ruegamer) sang his aria sensitively, Valayrie returned to center stage (literally, emerging only partially out of the central mound-hole), to perform the Sleepwalking scene, sometimes positioned head down. She wears a clinging, shoulderless white dress and white skullcap.

[Below: Lady Macbeth (Sylvie Valayre), finds that sleepwalking leads her through the mound-hole; edited image, based on a Ruth Walz photograph for Berlin Staatsoper.]

Mussbach saves one final arresting image. The movement of Birnam Wood is accomplished by dozens of leafy tall bushes moving from the back of the stage towards the front.

This was the final performance of the season for “Macbeth”. I suspect that many in the audience believe this is the last season the Mussbach production will appear at Staatsoper. A new phase for Staatsoper begins soon, as it moves out of its historic and very beautiful opera house on the Unter den Linden Strasse into a temporary home for several years, while restoration of the old house proceeds.

Having observed the impact on the San Francisco Opera when it had to perform a season out of the War Memorial Opera House in 1996-97, it seems to me quite likely that the Staatsoper’s scheduled absence from its home for a much longer period of time will bring many changes, not all anticipated, both for this company and for all of the opera companies in Berlin.

In the longer history of Verdi productions, the Staatsoper “Macbeth” will be considered to be an extravagant  episode in quixotic design, but as a testament to observance of high standards in the performance of Verdi’s music, the 2009 revival ranks among the great performances of Verdi’s “Macbeth”.