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Also published in The Rover.

Verdi’s Macbeth is a difficult early work. The premiere last week of Opéra de Montreal’s new production, a collaboration with Opera Australia, was an undignified birth. Tired and disoriented, the performance rarely glimmered with promise and never rose to the ambition of director René Richard Cyr, who proved a distracted helmsman.

Macbeth is a demanding opera. Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto compresses the title character’s ambition and recklessness while letting loose his conscience. Considerable acting ability is required to ride Macbeth’s compulsive leaps from apprehension to murder and back to guilt, and only the character of Lady Macbeth emerges consistently, one of the most memorable villains in opera.

There is fierce irony in the opera not found in the play, as when Macbeth and wife join the chorus in condemning the murderers of Duncan, or when the murderous and childless Lady Macbeth sings the toast “Give birth to pleasure, and death to sorrow.” Michele Capalbo sparkled when she sang the part, but was otherwise disappointing and unforgivably bereft of menace. Verdi wrote that Lady Macbeth should sing in a “rough, hollow, stifled” voice, but he could not have intended such a literal reading of the instructions.

John Fanning was more solid as Macbeth, though his colourful shadings sometimes lacked power. His pathetic Thane would have been a good foil to a psychopathic Lady if there been any chemistry between the two. As it was they mostly ignored each other, sparking briefly during their bloody duet to vengeance at the end of the third act.

But disconnection was endemic on the stage. If at times it seemed the entire company sang alone, particularly when assembled together, none suffered more than Brian McIntosh’s Banquo. Haggard and monolithic, a lodestone for a lack of direction, he sang through wool and moved like an ox.

Apart from Capalbo and Alexandre Sylvestre (whose velvet tone was a tonic — too bad his part was so minor) the cast wandered past each other. Was this an intentional contrast to the motions of the witches, who mimed chaos in many pointless ways? The choice to reduce Macbeth’s ghostly vision of Banquo’s line to five kings displayed the listlessness that pervaded the performance. The score provides time for more, for some motion, and instead we got Fanning counting bars — a pause into which the evening’s momentum crawled, sighed resignedly, and died.

Other aspects of the production were steadier but never inspired. Stephen Lord led the orchestra with subtlety, occasionally holding back when he could have counterbalanced the movement missing onstage, and the single set by Claude Goyette was gloomy but ineffectively used. Roger Honeywell as Macduff delivered his only aria “Ah la paterna mano,” with anguish and the night’s longed-for power. His efforts crystallized an impression of the production as full of misguided potential. It can only improve with each performance.