Monday, June 13, 2016

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: 'Macbeth,' the young Verdi's fond tribute to Shakespeare, illuminates the story's fundamental savagery

Giuseppe Verdi's predilection for the witches as the third main character in his setting of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" gives the pagan heritage of 11th-century Scotland greater weight than it normally has in the play. Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has taken full advantage of this focus in a production in which naked ambition, joined to supernatural prophecy, overwhelms the forces of  burgeoning civic order and Christian conscience.

The composer was conspicuously defensive of his knowledge of and respect for the playwright. In this first of his three completed treatments of Shakespeare, he moved toward a Shakespearean  understanding of character through motivation and action, which helped him surmount an operatic heritage that often allowed singers' vanity to rule the stage. OTSL's production retains an emphasis on the malevolent naturalness of the power couple at the center of the action through the performances of Roland Wood and Julie Makerov.

As seen June 10, the production also finds a way to confirm Verdi's belief that a whole coven of witches, instead of the conventional three, is not in the least redundant. In making the opera's opening scene a witch convention, with elaborate spells casting doom upon a poor sailor, Verdi and his librettists brought to the fore a community with power over everything that happens in the larger environment.

A battle-weary Macbeth encounters the witches, and sets his course.
Stage director Lee Blakeley has the 18 women moving in flowing, intimately linked groups. The costuming and the props, with nothing so literally a product of civilization as a cauldron to be seen, underline the primitive level of the accessed magic: As they sing lustily in the wake of the spectacularly realized thunder and lightning that have summoned them, they gather sticks and bring them into a magic circle.

Into this circle come the self-confident warriors Banquo and Macbeth, fresh from battle victory. They disdainfully scatter the sticks with their feet, but the witches will reassemble the circle, sealing their decisive authority and their control over fates the two soldiers imagine to be theirs.

Jeremy Sams' English translation captures the essential imagery of the play in this opening dialogue, including the prophecies that will be tragically fulfilled by the end. Wood's performance as Macbeth takes in the weightiness of decisions that follow upon the witches' predictions of his accession to the Scottish throne. In their first scene together, the Macbeths forge an intimacy that allows them to flesh out the implications of prophecy.

Macbeth cowers on his throne before the apparition.
Before that, Verdi's Lady Macbeth is even more ferocious and commanding than in Shakespeare, thanks to her introductory aria and cabaletta, paralleling the vision of greatness that opens to her after she reads her husband's letter and her resolve to realize it. Makerov made the most of the role's vocal demands, strong in all registers. Similarly, Wood sailed smoothly on the high tide of what became a hallmark of the "Verdi baritone": the ability to sound both lyrical and forceful in the upper range. In "Macbeth," this range is as capable of conveying the hero's realization of the dangerous path he is embarking upon ("What is this terror that burns within me?") as it is an expression of self-confidence and determination.

Verdi's four acts are here divided in two, with the feast at which Banquo's ghost appears, unsettling Macbeth decisively, occurring shortly before intermission. The staging makes of this disturbance a stark interruption of royal celebration by the moral barrenness of the Macbeths' claim on the throne. Banquo, displaying his mortal wounds, strides forward on the banquet table to fill his former companion's goblet. Silent in this scene, Robert Pomakov had displayed both vocal and dramatic valor from the first scene on.

Lady Macbeth contemplates  the king's corpse with satisfaction.
The staging of his murder was impressive: The cutthroats line up in rows on either side of the murdered King Duncan, lying in state. To conceive Macbeth's hired thugs as both mourners at a royal funeral and two groups of assassins sizing each other up establishes the uncertainty of order in the semi-wild Scottish kingdom. As the funeral Mass is celebrated, no sooner has Banquo risen from kneeling at the altar than he's attacked.

Costuming of the silent representatives of the church is brilliant; everyone else is in subdued tones. The overall lighting scheme is as consistently dark as the music,  conducted by Stephen Lord with just enough restraint to keep the aggressiveness of the orchestral writing from dominating. When the combined vocal and orchestral forces are overwhelming, he let it rip: The chorus responding to the discovery of King Duncan's body made a huge impact. The singers were effectively supported; the Macbeths' duets conveyed tension and subtlety — a sense that this dangerous couple is negotiating its feelings as well as its course toward a victory it will never find.

This is the first "Macbeth" production in OTSL history, a fact that can in part be explained by the 
difficulty of casting the two leading roles, according to repetiteur Lachlan Glen's preconcert lecture. The roles are well-filled by Wood and Makerov, although the soprano lacked a certain buoyancy in the drinking song, Lady Macbeth's uncharacteristic display of lightheartedness at the banquet until her husband sees Banquo's ghost. But the sleep-walking scene, with delicate accompaniment from the pit, was a triumph of characterization as Lady Macbeth finally registers the emotional and mental toll of her death-dealing schemes.
Literary critics have often pointed out the extensive clothing imagery in the play. Though that is less evident in this translation of the opera libretto, the look of the show is highly reliant on the characters' dress. Macbeth is girded for battle once again in the final struggle to retain his ill-gotten hold on power; the military trappings have a subdued glitter and hardness. He has earlier shed them after returning from battle and settling upon his murderous plan.

As presented in this production, the transition is powerfully symbolic. A loyal warrior, just rewarded by the king he is about to slaughter, strips for action. He is then clad plainly as he turns his gift for sanctioned violence toward private, illegitimate ends. Incapable any longer of sympathy or human connections beyond those with his collaborating wife, he is at the opposite pole from his nemesis, Macduff, for whom Verdi provides a beautiful lamentation for his slaughtered family, stirringly sung by tenor Matthew Plenk, just before the climactic battle.

That is crowned by a victory chorus that, while it may not be top-drawer Verdi, warms the heart as a welcome relief from a bloody tale that stirs our sympathy for the tragic hero only fitfully. At least that sympathy is nurtured and kept alive by the production's dark ambiance and so many musical rewards, the bulk of which this OTSL show delivers unerringly.

[Photos by Ken Howard]

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