First published in The Herald on 20 March, 2014
Ten years ago the theatre director Dominic Hill staged his first Macbeth. It was a graphic, claustrophobic, psychologically dense exploration of Shakespeare’s play, in which characters wore combats and fought ruthlessly on modern-looking battlefields. The following year Hill directed his first opera, Verdi’s Macbeth, for a Scottish Opera touring production that roamed the Highlands with a piano and a tiny cast of seven. Again the setting was contemporary, again inspired by recent conflicts in the Balkans, and again the dramatic tension revolved around the characters’ destructively intense relationships.
In the intervening decade Hill has returned to opera â€“ he directed Verdi’s Falstaff for Scottish Opera in 2008 â€“ and now he and the company meet again to revive their original Macbeth. This time the production gains a chamber orchestra (though still not the full forces of Verdi’s score) and opens this weekend at the Citizens Theatre, where Hill was appointed artistic director in 2011.
So: how has Hill’s approach to opera evolved since he first tackled the work ten years ago? â€œTo be honest, it hasn’t much,â€ he tells me, typically deadpan. â€œAt first I thought that directing opera would be very different from directing a play. Then I realised that it’s really just the same, but with more givens â€“ the biggest given being the music. My job doesn’t change in terms of creating a world, exploring why characters do what they do and ensuring that we tell a story. I have the same conversation with singers as I do with actors.â€ If anything, Hill says that he has developed â€œa confidence to let the music do its thingâ€: a confidence not to overstage the arias and to allow his singers space to simply, well, sing.
That said, Verdi’s take on the Scottish play is a considerably different drama than Shakespeare’s original. It is one of the Italian composer’s early operas and his best was still to come â€“ in many ways the score is an awkward compromise between operatic convention, flashes of Verdian invention and the integrity of Shakespeare’s script. â€œIt’s the bare bones of the play,â€ says Hill. â€œThe scenes are much shorterâ€ â€“ they have to be, because singing a line takes much longer than speaking it â€“ â€œso the drama is necessarily distilled. That can be frustrating. Lady Macbeth, for example, is a much less complex character.â€
Which is not to suggest that Verdi doesn’t also brings a huge amount to the table. â€œPoetry is replaced by music,â€ says Hill, and how beautiful that music is â€“ try Macduff’s tender aria, heavy with paternal grief, or the fantastically eerie sleepwalking scene. The drama works on its own terms, too. Verdi was always a director’s composer; even at this early stage he knew what he wanted and wrote in detail about how scenes should be played, â€œalmost from a director’s point of view,â€ says Hill. â€œHis sense of the dramatic situation is fabulous. He’s all about real people: he didn’t want his music to be sung too beautifully. He deals in interpersonal conflict, which is at the heart of all drama, and wanted a vivid portrayal of his characters. So in that sense it’s fabulous from a director’s point of view.â€
Hill’s production is set in a Scotland torn apart by a brutish military conflict. The original inspiration was the Balkans war: was he tempted to update the setting, perhaps to incorporate elements of the conflicts that we’ve witnessed over the past decade? â€œNo,â€ comes his frank answer. â€œI was asked to revive the original production, so that’s what I’ve done. I have tweaked it a bit: if you’re going to do something again, you might as well do it better.â€ He is aiming for a harder-edged, rougher, grittier account this time around. â€œBasically all the things I wanted it to be before â€“ now they are just achieved better. But I think the basic setting still works.â€
Take, for example, the issue of religion. â€œMacbeth is a very Catholic opera, whereas religion doesn’t figure so much in the play. I needed to find a cultural context where that sort of religion was embedded in a way that it isn’t in a contemporary Scotland. That’s why the Balkans worked as an inspiration. In the same way that Verdi created a Scotland for the opera, we’ve created a Scotland that happens to be inspired by the Balkans.â€ And before you ask, no: Hill does not think that his vision of a Scotland where civil war rages and a new order takes over from an old is in any way connected to a certain upcoming referendum. â€œSure, it tickles me when they’re singing ‘Scotland to war, to war’. There’s a sort-of resonance that I quite like. But beyond that? Nope. Don’t read into the timing.â€
As for directing opera, Hill says he’s keen to do more of it. â€œThere is nothing more amazing than a row of bodies singing to you,â€ he says. â€œI feel quite privileged, really. And there’s an option to be experimental and expressive in opera that I find exciting. It’s funny: we often stereotype opera audiences as being conservative, or the form as being old-fashioned, whereas actually a lot of opera productions are more off-the-wall and riskier than a lot of drama. There’s an acceptance that you might have 20 sheep bungeed down from the sky. Opera audiences don’t bat an eyelid because they accept that it’s not a case of art simply mimicking life.â€
Not a case of art simply mimicking life: the same basic principle holds true for Macbeth â€“ indeed for all of the classic plays around which Hill has built his career. â€œShakespeare is not a naturalistic writer,â€ he says. â€œVerse structure is not a naturalistic way of speaking. So these plays work on an innate belief in the power of theatre to achieve something greater than simply simulating the everyday. That’s what opera does, too. That’s probably why I’m drawn to it.â€
Macbeth is at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, on 20, 27 and 29 March and the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, on 8 and 10 April