Macbeth - Vasily Petrenko

In this country, Vasily Petrenko is best known as an orchestral conductor, and particularly for his work as chief conductor with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. His appearances in opera have been few, and he had never worked at Glyndebourne before he began work on Verdi’s Macbeth earlier this summer. Elsewhere, though, he has considerable operatic experience, notably at the St Petersburg State Opera and Ballet Theatre, where he was resident conductor from 1994 to 1997.

He is well positioned, then, to draw comparisons between working in the concert hall and working in the opera house: “When you’re conducting a symphony, more or less all the players are facing you, while in opera the soloists are often turned away from you. That means that you have to ‘feel’ them to be able to follow them. Opera is much more collaborative between conductor, orchestra and soloists, so that everyone has their own responsibility within the musical process. In short, it’s like driving a different vehicle: when you work with an orchestra, it’s like driving a normal four-seater car, with plenty of flexibility, manoeuvrability and a fair amount of speed. Conducting an opera, by contrast, is like driving a big truck: less flexible, but it can deliver many more goods.”

He has already conducted Macbeth in two different productions, and has strong ideas about the way the drama unfolds: “In Shakespeare, Lady Macbeth is pure evil, and it’s more or less because of her that everything happens. In Verdi, she is like that at the beginning, but over the course of the opera she becomes a victim of her own madness. Then in her mad scene, you truly feel sorry for her, rather than thinking of her simply as someone evil who is guilty of awful things. She is the driving force of the opera. And then there’s the chorus, which plays a big role: the chorus of witches, for example, is truly amazing, and then towards the end of the opera, you get the famous chorus,‘Patria oppressa’,‘Our oppressed homeland’, in which the people of Scotland become another force within the opera. It’s a multifaceted piece, very modern for the time it was written in terms of Verdi’s approach to the characters, to the singing, and to the action.”

Petrenko had not seen Richard Jones’s production before he began work on it, but as he says, “I knew that it was quite controversial: some people liked it, others strongly disliked it. That’s no bad thing: if everyone thinks that it’s just OK, then it’s quickly forgotten. What he has looked forward to most is re-creating the opera’s headlong dramatic and musical momentum: Verdi makes so many musical links between the different sections of the opera that it really does feel that the narrative moves in a single straight line. This is not an opera that wastes its time, there is plenty of action. By the end of the fourth act, you’ve lost track of who’s been killed and who hasn’t.”

Words: Nick Kimberley