The last time British director Adrian Noble came to town, he was employing a flying car to foil a tyrannical despot. This time around, he'll just use Macduff.
Noble is making his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, staging a new production of Verdi's Macbeth. It's his first show in New York since piloting the family-friendly musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang into the Hilton Theatre.
The production gets Noble back to his Shakespearean roots; the director was in charge of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1990 to 2003. It was there that he directed two productions of the Bard's Scottish Play, the work on which Verdi based his 1847 opera. Noble talked about the aesthetic relationship between Verdi and Shakespeare, and a world where Thanes sing.
Playbill.com: Have you directed many operas in the past?
Adrian Noble: I've done about four, most of them in France.
Playbill.com: How did this assignment come about?
AN: I think what happened was one of the productions I did in France was a Monteverdi, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria [with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the Aix-en-Provence Festival]. It was in 2000 and came back. It was one of those productions that wouldn't go away. Virtually there was a world tour, and one of its stops was Brooklyn Academy, which I think people from [the Met] saw. It was Joe Volpe's Met then. And then I talked to Peter Gelb. It sort of spanned the two regimes.
Playbill.com: Who chose Macbeth?
AN: I know that [Met music director James Levine] has been wanting to do a Macbeth for many years. There was one in the '80s which was not very successful. He loves the piece. He was passionate to do it again. They thought we would be a good match, and so far it has turned out to be a marvelous match.
Playbill.com: What is it you like so much about the opera?
AN: Well, my background is Shakespeare. I've directed Macbeth twice, first of all with Jonathan Pryce and Sinead Cusack and secondly Derek Jacobi and Cheryl Campbell. So, I knew the play very well. What's extraordinary about the opera is it's a first cousin of [Shakespeare's] Macbeth. Verdi has amazing insight and understanding of Shakespeare. Quite uncanny, really.
For me, it is like the Verdi opera is a kind of a bridge between Shakespeare's play and our era, in the sense that it is seen through the prism of the 19th century. Verdi first did it in 1847, just before all of those revolutions all across Europe. Every single city was ablaze. All those things that were happening — nationalism, people were wanting to create states, having to deal with internal conflicts — all those things were bubbling around Verdi at that time.
And the play's action emerges out of a civil war. They're not fighting a foreign power. It struck me so strongly that it tells the story of a leader in a civil war, a star general who was a brilliant soldier and hugely popular who becomes the leader of his country, and that leader becomes the oppressor of his people.
And there's all that collateral damage of thousands of refugees pouring over the English border. That's there; that's pure Verdi. That's the fundamental structural change he makes; he makes the damage Macbeth causes so much more vivid by introducing the refugees. And leaders like that are just as prevalent today, like Ceausescu.
Playbill.com: What sort of production are you giving it?
AN: Well, because it's sourced from a Shakespeare play, the dramaturgy has to be very fluid. You have to be able to go from a huge epic scene with 120 people on the stage down to a duet, just like that. Shakespeare wrote his plays so that he would move very swiftly from the public to the private, the intimate and the epic, the psychological and the political. That's the way the dramaturgy of the opera works. Therefore you have to create a set and a world in which you can act absolutely fluidly.
We are setting it post-World War II. That just seemed to me to be so clear for the reasons I enumerated.
Playbill.com: Did you have complete authority in casting the opera?
AN: No. I wouldn't want [it] at this stage in my opera career, because I don't know enough about it. Therefore, I would be dealing with a relatively narrow knowledge of people. It would be absurd for me to say I know who the best Macduffs are.