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  • No Can-can
  • Laura Tunbridge (bio)
Macbeth Underworld, opera to a libretto in eight chapters by Frédéric Boyer after William Shakespeare'sMacbeth, music by Pascal Dusapin. World Premiere: 09 20, 2019 (reviewed 09 22, 2019) at La Monnaie/De Munt, Brussels, Belgium. Conductor: Alain Altinoglu. Director: Thomas Jolly.

"Oh yes, something has to be done again." Thus ends Hecate's Prologue to Pascal Dusapin's new opera Macbeth Underworld, setting in motion the eight "chapters" that recount the horror, horror, horror of Shakespeare's tragedy. Hecate is a spoken role played by double-cast old-timer Graham Clark, his rolled-r resplendent (especially in "the mirror of dreams"). As startling as his orange wig is the fact that this opera, a co-commission by La Monnaie/De Munt in Brussels and the Opera-Comique in Paris, is in English. The only rationale for this seems to be that this is Shakespeare—though not, in Frederic Boyer's libretto, as we know it.

The eight operas of Dusapin (b. 1955) have almost all been re-workings of past plays and legends. His first, Romeo et Juliette(1985–88), was a pivotal work, according to Ian Pace, for in it Dusapin "applied properly his many conceptions about narrative to a theatrical medium." 1It was divided into nine "numbers," which begin by tracing the education of Romeo and Juliette from childhood to maturity. Pace explains: "If the narrative seemed non-linear and problematic in the first half of the work, in the second half it becomes clear that this is not really an operatic plot at all." 2Eventually, everything dissolves into microtonal distortion and fragmentation, and "the impossibility of opera, the story and even language itself become increasingly apparent." 3That sense of narratological and musical impossibility continues in Dusapin's subsequent operas (unsurprisingly, Samuel Beckett has been a significant influence). For Faustus, the Last Night(2003–04), Dusapin assembled his own libretto from a collage of Christopher Marlowe, William Blake, Shakespeare, Caligula, Gertrude Stein, and Al Capone. Critic Johanna Keller described it as "an opera of ideas, not actions." 4The opera-ballet Passion(2009) recasts Orpheus and Euridice as "Him" and "Her," trapped in their broken promises. The libretto of Penthesilea(2015) is a rewriting by Berlin-based playwright Beate Haeckl of Heinrich von Kleist's torrid verse play of the same name. Haeckl's take reversed the [End Page 245]Greek legend, transforming the Amazon queen Penthesilea from Achilles's victim to his vicious conquerer who, torn between love and warrior duty, has him torn apart by dogs before killing herself. Alex Ross remarked that Dusapin exercises "admirable restraint" in his "grave and meditative opera," the "ritual distance" of which "is perhaps too coolly controlled for a subject as unhinged as Kleist's"; ultimately, it lacked "a climactic coup de theatre." 5A stymied dramatic charge lies at the heart of these works, creating tension but never releasing it in the way that opera, as an art form, is so well set up to do.

Similarly disruptive and distanciating narrative principles are at play in Macbeth Underworld. Boyer, contemplating how to interpret Shakespearean tragedy as an opera today, describes his libretto as an abbreviated adaption of the original text, "a sort of gloomy and enchanted digression from the work and its myth" ("une sorte de digression noire et enchantee de l'oeuvreet deson mythe"). 6Refrains, phrases, words, letters, from Shakespeare and other sources—the Bible, Lewis Carroll, e.e. cummings—are said to have been processed by something akin to a "contemporary lyric machine" ("un emachine lyrique contemporaine"), making the libret to a commentary on, or, to use Boyefs term, a "midrash" of, Macbeth. 7On top of these literary references, Irina Kaiserman reports that Dusapin watched all the Macbethfilms he could find; he was particularly drawn to Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood(1957) and to Judi Dench's performance as Lady Macbeth in a 1979 production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. 8The quivering voice of another Lady Macbeth, Francesca Annis, in Roman Polanski's Macbeth(1971), may also have inflected Dusapin's approach to composing the part. In this world...


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