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By Heather Mac Donald, Victor Davis Hanson and Steven Malanga

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Books and Culture

Heather Mac Donald
Is This Great Opera That I See Before Me?
A brilliant staging of Macbeth in Salzburg
30 August 2011

Memo to Peter Gelb: Get Peter Stein a visa. The prestigious German theater director was supposed to come to the Metropolitan Opera last season to direct Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov but withdrew in pique after prolonged complications in obtaining a visa. (Stephen Wadsworth carried on from Stein’s notes.) If Stein’s new setting of Verdi’s Macbeth at the Salzburg Festival (with Riccardo Muti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic) is any indication, Met general manager Gelb should pull out all the stops to bring the temperamental director to New York. The German and Austrian press, hostile to any production that bucks the Regietheater mandate, trashed Stein’s Macbeth. Need one say more?

Stein is a fierce opponent of the reigning ideology on the German and Austrian stage, where updating theater and opera is mandatory and where directors are expected to impose their predictable political views on works of the past. Stein told the Italian news agency ANSA this July that he could no longer work in Germany: “They’ve made non-conventional theater conventional,” he said, adding that the drive to modernize works had become “hysterical.” By contrast, Stein views himself as the handmaiden to the author and composer. “I provide facts, not an interpretation, facts that are contained in the libretto and above all in the score,” he explains in the Macbeth program book.

Such a claim oversimplifies matters; interpretation is inevitable when responding to any kind of communication. But a director who consciously sets out to realize an author’s intent will produce radically different stagings from those produced by someone who feels it necessary to make a work “relevant.” Many directors today shrink from Macbeth’s portents and spirits as an embarrassing throwback to a more naive sensibility. Not Stein. He gave us the works: the witches around a cauldron on a barren heath; the regicidal Macbeth desperately asking them whether his power will last; the prophesying heads rising from the witches’ brew—one of them, the bloody child who promises Macbeth immunity from any man born of woman, grotesquely glistening with bright red gore.

Such fidelity to the story drove the German and Austrian critics into a state of apoplexy. The reviewer for the Frankfurter Allegemeine erupted in contempt for Stein’s “naive Punch and Judy show.” The critic rattled off Stein’s stage elements, all specified in Verdi’s score—the fog-enshrouded helmeted head, the witches (or, as the reviewer sputtered, “the hook-nosed Harry Potter witches with their hanging breasts”), “bloody children’s heads and the like!”—as if merely listing them constituted proof of their absurdity. According to Marcus Hinterhäuser, the Festival’s artistic director, one local critic mentioned neither the music nor Riccardo Muti, so intent was he on the primary mission: “Kill Peter Stein!” Other viewers, however, may find Shakespeare’s weird combination of the supernatural and the all-too-human a more compelling artistic experience than whatever else a director feels entitled to substitute.

Stein evoked Macbeth’s barren world and growing isolation through insightful use of Salzburg’s striking Felsenreitschule theater—an almost impossibly wide stage surrounded by three tiered rows of stone arcades carved out of a cliff. Eighteenth-century Salzburgers watched equestrian exhibitions from the rugged arcades, which now serve as a backdrop—sometimes an eerily appropriate one—for the stage. (Stein knows the Felsenreitschule intimately, having served as Salzburg’s theater director from 1992 to 1997.) His panoramas of medieval courtiers and chain-mail-clad knights resembled the Bayeux Tapestry; a darkness-dappled chorus of leafy forest spirits, clambering over a large hummock, recalled a Boschian nightmare. Stein incorporated modernist elements as well: a Donald Juddesque black cube rose from the stage to represent Duncan’s final bedchamber; Lady Macbeth toasted her royal power atop a glowing white banquet table that looked something like a Dan Flavin installation.

It is no insult to Stein, however, to say that his production’s greatest virtue was to avoid standing in the way of Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic’s breathtaking reading of Verdi’s score, an accomplishment that eludes many European directors today. This was a performance (I attended it on August 12) of a lifetime, the result, one felt, of a towering musical intellect able to bend the great instrument of the Vienna Philharmonic to every aspect of his will. Muti’s detailed approach to phrasing was stunning. His tempi were often fast, but always breathing. He freely used rubato and just as freely changed the tempo over the course of a scene. Such liberties seemed deeply considered and motivated by the logic of the score, rather than capricious or self-indulgent.

The first of the opera’s several great duets—“Due vaticini compiuti or sono” (“Two of the prophecies have now come to pass”)—demonstrated this subtle rhythmic variation. Macbeth and Banquo each privately contemplate the witches’ predictions: that Macbeth will be king and Banquo the father of kings. As the witches vanished, Muti brought the orchestra and singers down to a suspenseful pause, out of which Macbeth (Serbian bass-baritone Željko Lučić) voiced his troubled thoughts in a choked whisper. Muti maintained the suffocating tension while quickening the pulse, then pulling it back as the strings faded again into silence at the end of the scene.

“Due vaticini” embodies in miniature the paradoxes of the opera. The duet’s throbbing Italianate lyricism, as Banquo (Ukrainian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy) embroiders his ironic commentary around Macbeth’s nervous musings, could easily emanate from a gondola drifting in a moonlit lagoon. This yoking of Shakespearean conceit and mid-nineteenth century Italian musical language can seem incongruous—until one succumbs to Verdi’s magnificent contrapuntal ensembles and oceanic end-of-act choruses. Then any musical anachronism becomes irrelevant. This transformation of Elizabethan rhetorical complexity into Romantic expressivity is a triumph of civilization, whereby men of genius converse across centuries.

Russian soprano Tatiana Serjan conveyed Lady Macbeth’s fierce impetuosity through stylish shifts in pacing and volume, pulling back unexpectedly from a fortissimo in her first blazing call for blood, “Vieni! t’affretta!,” then luxuriously stretching out the aria’s final flourish. During the haunting orchestral introduction to the sleepwalking aria, Serjan dazedly traversed the entire backlit top arcade, then descended to the stage to give an arresting portrait of a guilt-destroyed mind.

Lučić’s Macbeth was a more vulnerable figure from the start. When Banquo’s assassins report that Banquo’s son had escaped them, thus obviating the main point of their attack, Lučić stood frozen, looking shrunken and lost. His boorish manners at the royal banquet table were a reminder that we were still very much in the Middle Ages. Lučić’s sheer lung power did not match that of Serjan (nor did it need to, since it was only from Lady Macbeth that Verdi wanted a “harsh” and “diabolical” voice), and he seemed to tire over the course of the evening. But his expressive detail, such as an agonized upwards appoggiatura in Macbeth’s terrified account of Duncan’s murder, was equally commanding.

Yet however accomplished the soloists, the stars of this performance were Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic. Muti is the only conductor, says Hinterhäuser, who can talk back to this famed, nearly 160-year-old orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic can reportedly be a bit lazy if not pushed, especially in the Italian repertoire. Muti clearly had their unbroken attention, resulting not just in astoundingly subtle phrasing but also in a crystalline delineation of instrumental color.

Hinterhäuser is to be thanked for bringing together Muti and Stein for this unforgettable production, since it was guaranteed to offend the European press. Hinterhäuser is no critic of Regietheater: working with Peter Sellars, Christoph Marthaler, and other modernizing directors has enriched his life, he says. And yet he sounds decidedly impatient with Europe’s reigning production ideology. Stein is not interested, Hinterhäuser says, in “putting over” the “petty, boring ideas” that infatuate so many contemporary conductors. “Shakespeare is bigger than that,” Hinterhäuser adds, smoking nervously in his high-ceilinged, light-filled office in Salzburg’s Grosses Festspielhaus. “Everything—the power, the cruelty—it’s all in Shakespeare’s piece. It would’ve been superficial and banal if you’d put it in our time, making it about Qaddafi, say.”

I ask Hinterhäuser: Why the widespread opposition to taking composers’ directions and music to heart? Historical productions are seen as “conservative and reactionary,” he responds. Indeed, Regietheater proponents hilariously flatter themselves that they are fighting a right-wing power structure by updating operas. “So many Intendanten [opera house managers] feel themselves so provocative if they upset the audience,” Hinterhäuser observes. “I’m not interested in that.” One can only wanly hope that Alexander Pereira, who will become Salzburg’s artistic director this fall, feels the same way; Pereira’s run at the Zurich Opera House does not inspire optimism.

Americans have few immediate prospects for seeing Peter Stein’s work—unless Peter Gelb can renew his petition. This summer’s Macbeth will not be remounted at the Festival. As for Muti, he announced in July that he will not be conducting opera at Salzburg any longer, after a nearly unbroken 40-year run there. If his known distaste for the Festival’s usual fare of Regietheater influenced his decision, he didn’t say so. But it is not too soon to start contemplating a trip to Chicago, which enjoys the happy prospect of hearing Muti lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in both opera and the symphonic repertoire.

Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor of City Journal and the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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