It's often referred to as "The Scottish Play" and not because people are being smarmy or funny. Apparently, many in the theater community believe this example of Shakespeare's endearing brilliance is cursed, claiming catastrophe and chaos whenever it is performed. This stems from the use of witchcraft and spells as part of the narrative device. In fact, one of the funniest episodes of the masterful Blackadder TV series had Rowan Atkinson's dark mixer making the lives of two actors absolutely miserable, constantly referencing the forbidden title and forcing them into a silly superstition driven rhyme/ritual. Still, some of the most formidable faces in all of the medium have longed to play the roles of Macbeth and his murderous Lady wife while artists universally have freely adapted the material. One great example of Giuseppe Verdi's excellent 1847 opera. Lifted by an emotionally charged score which suggests the story's already over the top conceits brilliantly, this new staging by the National Opera of Paris under the direction (and set and costume design) of Dmitri Tcherniakov from the Bolshoi Theater in Russia puts a post-modern spin on the medieval tale, and translates it expertly to a tech savvy contemporary crowd.
Upon returning home from war, Macbeth and his buddy Banquo run into a collection of witches (here, portrayed as the populace of a local apartment block) where they learn the following: that our hero will become the Thane of Cawdor, and then King. They also inform Banquo that he will father a long line of higher royalty, while not becoming one himself. Returning home, Macbeth tells his Lady wife what he has learned, and she instantly begins plotting her husband's ascension. When reigning King Duncan decides to spend the night with his favorite Thane, the conspiracy is set. Macbeth murders the sovereign and takes the throne. Uneasy about the prophecy regarding Banquo, he orders him and his son killed. Later, the 'witches' predict that someone "not born of woman" will defeat Macbeth and take his position. Racked with guilty, Lady Macbeth commits suicide. Then, another one of Banquo's sons, MacDuff, challenges the sitting scoundrel. When he learns that the boy was not born of woman, but from his mother's womb 'untimely ripped', he realizes he is doomed. He is killed, and MacDuff becomes King.
From the odd Google Maps like introduction to the use of an entire chorus as the infamous "weird sisters," this is not your Humanities instructor's version of Macbeth. In fact, the update turns the often morbid Gothic tragedy into something of a sour kitchen sink drama. By retrofitting the entire production toward a button down version of modernity, by making Lady Macbeth a pudgy cackling hen of a housefrau, Tchernaikov finds a way to connect with today's viewer. Sure, this is still a group of people singing in an often arcane form of song, in a language that is typically presented sans subtitles (the Blu-ray has them, of course), but there is a vibrancy and aliveness here that cannot be cast aside. By using recognizable elements such as the Internet, the flash mob, the dour dinner party and the Eastern Bloc aesthetic, we are cast directly into the world of these characters. Granted, some advanced knowledge of the premise would help, and the unusual framing device used (Tchernaikov has the action take place inside a lighted border, suggesting the view from a webcam, or a video camera) does add a bit too much distance. Yet once the singers open their mouths, all is forgiven.
This is one of Verdi's strongest scores, a work of bombast and backwards subtlety. The arias all add to the characterization, while the sentiments explored mimic Shakespeare's own themes rather well. The libretto retains some of the Bard's most memorable lines, yet the entire piece is also overhauled to fit the new format. Gone are some of the subplots, a few ancillary characters, and a lot of dialogue. In its place are moments of sheer wonder, as when Letitia Singleton sets her husband straight on what the Macbeths must do. Similarly, her "out damned spot" solo resonates with high diva power. As the title character, Dimitris Tiliakos looks like a fails bureaucrat, and his voice varies from admirable to arch. Yet he comes across as the perfect power mad patsy, a man who would have nothing were it not for his belief in the prophecies. When given the chance to act, he wears his worry on his bearded face. Toward the end, when his world is falling apart, the lack of a true charisma serves the character well. It turns Macbeth into what he always was - a pawn in a game between fate and flawed destiny.
It's the look that will linger for many fans. Even those familiar with the music will be baffled/bedazzled by Tchernaikov's choices. The group think mentality for the witches works, while the Google Maps inserts wear out their welcome rather quickly. The use of the frame is fine, except the video director of this production keeps trying to usurp the border, resulting in some awkward compositions. Also, the sets are grim, almost stark in their lack of frills. At first, we find this engaging. But over the long haul, it leaves us to focus almost solely on the cast - and sometimes, they come up short. Extras and extended soloist just don't have Singleton and Tiliakos' flash. Similarly, when called on to react, they become arch and almost silent film like. Perhaps it's all part of some baroque colorized German expressionism approach. It could also be the result of seeing facets up close that no camera was supposed to catch. Like watching the words waltz by during a particularly stirring opera, video is not the best way to experience this artform. In the case of Macbeth, approach and acting more than saves the day.
Given a glorious 1080i HD transfer from Belair Classiques, the visual aspect of this Blu-ray release is excellent. There are no visible flaws, no artifacting or instances of flash/flaring. Instead, in keeping with the digital upgrade to the narrative, the optical aspect of this title is up to date and near reference quality. Some may balk at the questionable direction of the overall presentation, but Tchernaikov's ideas are featured flawlessly, front and center.
Skip the PCM Stereo. It doesn't do the show or the theater justice. Instead, jump right to the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. It's amazing. There is a great sense of space and acoustic reverberation here, as well as a bell ringing crystal clarity to the voices. The orchestration, featuring conductor Teodor Currentzis, is never overpowering, even when delivering a true sonic blast. Instead, everything is expertly balanced, leaving one with the feeling of being there, live, as the show unfolds.
In a small documentary piece entitled "From Nobosibirk to Paris." we discover how Tchernaikov came to take the commission and the hardships in bringing his vision to life. We get some nifty behind the scenes glimpses and a few bits of backstage gossip. Overall, the added content is decent, if not definitive.
Among his many masterful works, Shakespeare's Macbeth remains one of his most memorable. Few can forget the oddball mixture of political intrigue, supernatural interference, murder, suicide, and horrific hubris. Luckily, Verdi's opus captures all of this, as does Dmitri Tcherniakov's staging and this Blu-ray release. Earning an easy Highly Recommended rating, this is a classical gas for even those who can't stand the antiquated artform. It's so unusual looking and modern feeling that they'll barely recognize its ancient roots. For such a legendary and mythic work, the superstitious part of Macbeth remains - to wit, it will definitely cast a spell over you.