Blythe Gaissert, mezzo
Kelly Horsted, piano
The famous sleepwalking scene in Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the context for this piece, and a similar night is imagined here in song. Macbeth's wife is a strange character: she's a dominant force in the play, but then vanishes from the action long before the end. There's such strength of personality there, such commanding ambition, and yet her death is unseen, almost unnoticed. How did her day-to-day life unfold? What of her children, in an age when that defined her role? We hear that she was physically small, slight, and yet her ruthlessness drives the action, the history around her. Did she love her husband? What mix of selfishness, fear, ego, and worry drove her to act as she did?
This scene is generally remembered for Lady Macbeth’s compulsive hand-washing – “Out, damned spot!” and “all the perfumes of Arabia” – but how much more poignant the mention of her nightly letters to her absent husband: written, sealed, and apparently forgotten in her somnambulance, scribbled in the light she now demands at all times. A rich imaginative business – not least because, of course, it is her reading of Macbeth’s earlier letter which fuels her imagination and ambition, driving the mortal engine of the plot. After this famous scene, we never see or hear from her again.
Like the most human characters, she's parodixical, ambiguous: a luminous, tender fragility in her, and yet always a thread of steel. The vocal line should be intensely legato, with the freedom and flexibility of plainchant. Rhythms are only a guide. The sound should be limpid, transclucent, hypnotic: somewhere between chant, lullaby (to whom? herself? her husband? some imagined child?) and lament.
Each phrase should find chant's push-and-pull of time; let the voice bloom into the resonance of the piano's strange plucked notes – they are, of course, the twinkling candlelight, and the stars. The night is long, and cold, and in her fear she has ordered lights around her always. But in sleep, her eyes closed, she walks in the dark.
... light, a light: I must have light–
light thickens in the eye, grows scarce;
the stars hide; I have known them all.
No time, no sleep: the taste of fear.
‘... sleep no more’, you said; a voice cried,
‘sleep no more’. If I cry out will
you not hear? Will there be time
to hold a candle to despair?
Will there be time to murder and
create? No time, no time: you have
no time for me, not for a word;
no time, only tomorrow and–
I must have light: a small white home
that blooms around this kindled sun,
this piece of star we keep alive
with cupp’d hands, wax and string.
Stare in the taper; look away;
light lingers like a lifted touch:
a vision strung through dust and dreams
for all the works and days of hands.
... all blood is ink that stains the skin,
blank pages flesh without a heart:
feel no more heat, no chill of grace,
no more the luxury of eyes.
... wash these small hands, tie on this gown–
no sleep, you told me: sleep no more;
look not so pale, give me your hand:
the stars hide, they have known us all.
– Duncan McFarlane