Commentary on Macbeth by member of the chorus

A thought provoking commentary by Laura Sparkes, member of the Macbeth’s Community Chorus

Hi all
From several conversations I had with Chorus members I know this year’s Opera made people think. The Refugee Chorus, in particular, resonated for some people in terms of experiences of parents or grandparents or for those pupils people had taught, or simply relating to news coverage elsewhere in the world.. It certainly made me think on all sorts of levels. In some of what I say below I may be stating the obvious about Chris and Nick’s intentions (or got them all wrong!), but curiously, it only settled into the conscious mind when ‘recollected in tranquillity’ and doesn’t life seem curiously tranquil after all that!
Looking forward to seeing some of you at the Picturehouse on Monday.

As well as a huge ‘blast’ in enjoying the singing I thought I would try and capture some of the ways that participation has developed my thinking about ‘Macbeth’. As an ex-English teacher, I taught Macbeth for several years and had always found it an interesting study of power, gender, tyranny and dynasty comparing it over the years to Saddam Hussain and J R Ewing . I also had some awareness that ‘warlords’ and their devastating effects were not the stuff of history alone to some of our Somali pupils, for example.
After the Blackheath Community Opera experience, I now have this even more intriguing palimpsest in my head which is Shakespeare‘s original text (and years of teaching it in Tower Hamlets), overlaid by the 19th Century sensibility of Piave and Verdi , which is in turn overlaid by the 21st Century interpretations of Chris Rolls and Nick Jenkins, and all go to interesting places concerning human behaviour.

It also got me thinking more carefully about the differences between plays and opera, probably old ground for many, but as someone relatively new to opera – largely thanks to Blackheath – it’s a fascinating new area for me to explore.

The introduction of the Chorus is, of course, part of what makes the light refract differently in the opera from the play. A conventional part of opera, the Chorus’s presence on stage takes us back, in terms of Drama, to Ancient Greek tragedy where its function is to comment on the characters and action, both in terms of moral and religious significance. Piave’s (and Rolls’) version does this, but even more crucially to me, he ensures that we , the Chorus, are driving home the effects that the personal and political actions of the powerful have on ordinary people.

One of the great themes of Macbeth (both play and opera) is the deception that results from this manipulation of power. There is a sharp focus on the difference between appearance and reality. Lady MacB’s injunction to ‘Look like the innocent flower /But be the serpent under’t’; Macbeth’s ‘False face must hide what the false heart doth know’; poor Donalbain’s ‘there’s daggers in men’s smiles’ all reinforce this theme. This central theme means both playwright and composer/librettist (and director and musical director)have the problem(or opportunity) of how they show the audience both the flower and the serpent simultaneously so that we, as audience, see what the characters on stage see and say, but we are also aware of what they are thinking and intending.

One way in which Shakespeare solves this is the use of the soliloquy where the audience is made party to the character’s thoughts. In Verdi ‘s version this is translated in many cases directly to an aria. It’s interesting to note, however, which soliloquys are retained and which dropped. Visually dramatic ones such as ‘Is this a dagger…’ is there, but more cerebral agonising such as ‘If it twere done..’ ,where Macbeth rehearses all the arguments about why he shouldn’t kill Duncan, is omitted. Perhaps that’s the reason there’s no Verdi Hamlet!

Verdi/Piave bring this idea to a climax in one of the Chorus’s favourite numbers (Hell is gaping….’), where we brought hell and damnation centre stage. Those of us who’ve sung his requiem know how good Verdi is at hellfire and even those of us who are a little sceptical about its existence got swept along on a satisfyingly extreme emotional wave (and wow what a high when chorus, orchestra and soloists were going full blast and Miriam soared over the top of everything!).

This insertion of a chorus into the Shakespeare text takes us back to the Greek choral function of commenting on the religious significance of the action (Duncan’s murder), particularly with regard to vengeance. As we know, throughout history, God’s potential for vengeance has often been used as a solace to the injured and oppressed (or opiate to the masses – take your choice!).

Verdi’s version also rather cleverly makes use of the (rather fruitless) demand that the perpetrator should receive the mark of Cain which would make public who the murderer is. In this world of lies and false faces we, the people in the household, needed to know who dunnit! This biblical reference is not, as far as I know, in Shakespeare, but sits perfectly in this choral context and the Sams translation ( ‘branded for treason as Cain was’) makes it even more explicit than it is in Piave (E vi stampi sul volto l’impronta/ Che stampasti sul primo uccisor). Possibly Sams’ thinking was a modern, non-catholic audience wouldn’t know who the ‘primo uccisor’ was without a bit of help. In any case the line including ‘as Cain was’ was great to spit out in righteous indignation!

Of course, where opera can really ‘score’ in these situations is where several people are ‘talking’ at once. Shakespeare didn’t have that as an option as there must be turn-taking in spoken dialogue or you can’t make anything out, whereas opera can give you several clear lines at different pitches at the same time. At this point there is the interesting double vision that the Chorus apparently thinks soloists and Chorus are ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ whereas the audience knows Macb and Lady Macb are being totally hypocritical and that final slightly discordant ‘blast’ is not a harmony of thought at all.

This idea of lots of levels at once is also demonstrated in another chorus that was tremendous fun to sing: the Banquet scene ‘He is haunted….’ Initially I was a bit non-plussed by this jolly waltz tune accompanying the idea of fools and madmen ruling the land, but I grew to appreciate that it fits the world of appearance v. reality very well. To all intents and purposes we were loyal courtiers. We had superficially shaken off the hatred and anger caused by Duncan’s murder and were apparently dedicating ourselves, under Lady M’s direction, to ‘joy and delight’.

But , of course, the disequilibrium caused by the murder had gone far deeper. It would have been far too dangerous to say out loud what we were thinking, so we carried on dancing mechanically on the surface while individually expressing our deepest fears to ourselves. Under Verdi and Nick’s direction sometimes the thoughts became so overwhelming that we burst out in sudden fortes, but never for a whole sentence : we shut up before anyone could catch the meaning of our hidden thoughts. There was something terrifying about thinking that thieves and madmen were ruling us (some chorus members felt this belonged to the 21st as much as the 17th or 19th century – I wouldn’t like to comment!) and there seemed to be absolutely nothing we could do or say about it as we didn’t know who to trust.

From an audience viewpoint, Verdi’s disposition of the music and Chris’ clever direction meant the audience were simultaneously aware of : our impotent plight, Macduff’s resolution for action, Macbeth’s increasing mental disturbance , and Lady M’s irritation. As a chorus we were driven round by our thoughts, but seeing the interlocking circling from Macbeth’s viewpoint must have been dizzying: very like one of those camera whirling moments in 30s films when too much psychological pressure results in a character collapsing.

The final chorus that had us all in tears was the Scottish refugees ‘Patria Oppressa’: a lot of picture painting in the music with the lamentation of the widows and orphans and our numb depression about our land of terror and torture again occasionally bursting into fortes of despair.

This scene doesn’t happen in chorusless Shakespeare. The play does, however, contain the idea that Macbeth, the butcher tyrant, is destroying the country and its people. In Shakespeare most of this information comes in the scene where Macduff is tested by Malcolm (Act IV sc.3). This scene has its roots in Shakespeare’s source Holinshed. Early on Macduff mentions ‘Each new morn/ New widows howl, new orphans cry’. I’ve always found it slightly ludicrous, however, that Malcolm, in order to test Macduff’s ethical solidity, portrays himself as quite such a pantomime villain who will fill up the ‘cistern’ of his lust on wives, daughters ,matrons and maids and Shakespeare does neither himself nor Macduff any favours when the latter counters: that’s ok ‘we have willing dames enough’. I suppose Malcolm is very young and Macduff is very desperate to get his support!
In Verdi I found the refugee scene particularly moving and audiences did too apparently. Possibly awareness of the huge terrible movements of people driven from home, typified by Syria, was close to the surface. I have to admit that I found myself blurring up as I looked at the small child lying beside me, clearly having fainted from malnutrition and fatigue and I knew I couldn’t protect him. In one way I’m slightly suspicious of the ersatz emotion that any kind of acting involves, but I think it did mean, because of our previous personal experiences, we made some kind of imaginative leap to people in all kinds of refugee situations.

When the soldiers came in (looking for terrorists? Looking to support us?) it certainly had the sense of there’s just another lot of oppressors: what’s the point? In the 1970s I knew an Ethiopian headmaster of an orphanage and school for street children in Addis Ababa. Just before the fall of Haile Sellasie, I asked him how he felt about the changing political situation (theoretically to a socialist government although it proved far otherwise). He simply said that he steered clear of politics and didn’t care whether a chimpanzee was on throne. I think his remark was a bit disingenuous, but he brought home to me how those in extreme poverty and distress can just be washed from the shore of one crisis to the next. I’m glad to report that he and the school are still going strong, so he did manage to navigate some kind of course through some terribly dark days.

Our sudden transformation from hopeless refugees into a rebel army was perhaps a little unbelievable (even allowing for Charne and Tom’s rousing singing!) – but hey it’s an opera and doesn’t have the luxury of the time frame of a novel. It’s also possible something similar was truly beginning to happen in parts of Italy in 1847.

Cicero claimed that the function of good oratory should be ‘Docere’ (to teach) ‘Movere’ (to move) ‘Delectare’ (to delight).

Well I reckon : join Blackheath Chorus and you get all three!

Laura Sparkes (Community Chorus 2013)

With special thanks to Chris, Nick and Rose


One thought on “Commentary on Macbeth by member of the chorus

  1. Congratulations to Laura for crystallising these thoughts so clearly. Despite some misgivings when I heard that this year’s choice was Verdi’s Macbeth, I agree that it turned out to be both an entertaining & a very relevant production, given all the current turmoil in Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. I can certainly confirm, having lain ‘dead’ centre stage, that ‘Hell is gaping’ makes a huge impact, with the chorus giving voice to the audience’s horror at MacB’s hypocrisy.
    I missed Macduff’s lament ‘My children, my little children’ in Act IV due to a rapid costume change, but I heard it in the relay of the NT Macbeth, spoken very movingly by Ray Fearon, & I was struck by the thought of how many thousands of fathers could be saying or thinking exactly those words today:
    I cannot but remember such things were /that were most precious to me. Did heaven look on, /And would not take their part? Sinful Macduff, /they were all struck down for thee! Naught that I am, /not for their own demerits but for mine /fell slaughter on their souls. /Heaven rest them now!”

    As for next year – I’d love to hear Matthew sing the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo – his confrontation with King Philip is about the scariest scene in all opera! (And church v state is pretty relevant too.)

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