Opera / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Verdi, Macbetto, Boston Lyric Opera

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Macbeth (Daniel Sutin) and Lady Macbeth (Carter Scott) confer in Verdi's Opera. Photo Erik Jacobs.
Macbeth (Daniel Sutin) and Lady Macbeth (Carter Scott) confer in Verdi's Opera. Photo Erik Jacobs.

Verdi, Macbetto
Boston Lyric Opera
November 4, 2011

Conductor – David Angus
Stage Director – David Schweizer
Original Production – Leon Major
Set Designer – John Conklin
Costume Designer – Nancy Leary
Lighting Designer – Robert Wierzel
Movement Director – Ken Roht
Fight Director – Rob Najarian
Projected English Titles – John Conklin
Wigs And Makeup
Designer –  Jason Allen

Macbeth, Baritone – Daniel Sutin*
Lady Macbeth, Soprano – Carter Scott*
Banquo, Bass – Darren K. Stokes
Macduff, Tenor – Richard Crawley
Malcolm, Tenor – John Irvin*
Lady-In-Waiting, Soprano – Michelle Trainor*
A Doctor, Bass – David Cushing
A Servant, An Assassin,
A Herald, First Apparition – James Demler*
Second Apparition (A Bloody Child) – Molly Paige
Crookedacre/Third Apparition (A Crowned Child) – Marie Mccarville*

Shakespeare was a great inspiration to Verdi, as he was to Berlioz and to many other nineteenth-century composers, writers, and artists of all kinds. Opera Boston recently presented Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict, adapted from Much Ado About Nothing; and before this late work Berlioz had, of course, written his great “dramatic symphony” Roméo et Juliette and an early King Lear Overture. Verdi wrote Macbetto in 1847 (and revised and added to it later), his tenth opera, and just on the cusp of his great middle period that would include Rigoletto and La Traviata He concluded his career decades later with the magnificent Otello and Falstaff, works that rival in greatness their Shakespeare sources. (Maybe Falstaff more than rivals The Merry Wives of Windsor. As for Otello, ages ago I was at a splendid Metropolitan Opera production—Levine, Vickers—and on the way out encountered a prominent Renaissance literature scholar from Princeton—“I think it’s greater than the play!” he gasped.)

It was not just as source material that Shakespeare mattered so much to the nineteenth century. His work with its highly developed individuals, turbulent emotions, inspired and irregular language, leaps about in time and space, and broad political concerns, served as a basic inspiration for poets, painters, dramatists, and composers seeking to break free of the restrained European classical tradition and bring a fuller range of human experience into art. Berlioz, Verdi, the Romantic poets, Victor Hugo, Dickens, and Tolstoy, were Shakespeareans right from the start and throughout their work. (So was Jane Austen, a classicist, but with a new sense of rich human personality and possibilities for character development—the story of Shakespearean influence is complicated.)

Macbetto gives us Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the man easily lured into political ambition and a willingness to commit crimes to advance it, and his famous wife who abets and urges him on, for a time seeming stronger and more ruthless than he, but in the end going mad under the strain of consciousness of guilt and of the opposition rising against her husband and herself, eventually taking her own life. Verdi expands Shakespeare’s three Witches into a chorus, tempting Macbeth and predicting his future success, as if they are a political entity, not just metaphysical oddities encountered on the moors, or externalizations of Macbeth’s own inner drives. And Verdi keeps the political to the fore throughout, with a chorus almost ever-present that transmogrifies from soldiers to witches to courtiers to outraged countrymen and a new army determined to oppose Macbeth’s horrible rule once he comes to power as king. The music, much of it in the minor mode, is tense and ominous—Verdi was very skilled at this point with unsettling rhythms, shocking harmonic leaps, and orchestral color. The vocal writing is big and expressive, though it doesn’t achieve the indelible melody associated with character and the dramatic moment that we get in Rigoletto or Il Trovatore, soon to come. And the characters are not complex relative to what Verdi would soon show he could do. What seems to interest him here is simple but forceful individuals, abusers and abused, set in a dark world of wars, upheavals, superstition, and political ruthlessness—and finally, more prominent than in the Shakespeare play, a nation trying to get hold of itself and look to a brighter future. The world of Verdi’s own day might take note and draw what analogies it would. So might ours.

The current production, directed by David Schweizer, designed by John Conklin, has no hint of the original Scottish setting. It is a nightmare world with dead bodies hanging upside down—Macbeth’s fate eventually; primitive troll-like figures constantly swirling around and morphing into the chorus and extras as the story progresses; giant puppets that both reproach the guilty and menace the innocent; modern “fascist” and, for Lady Macbeth, dominatrix costuming mixed in with the archaic imagery; large geometric metal shapes that move and descend even during the course of single scenes, suggesting modern cityscapes; a backdrop toward the end suggesting massed corpses as at a concentration camp; an often dark surround with dramatic spotlighting. It is ugly and spectacular, and makes its point. We have descended into the hell of history with all its horrors from different periods present at once, or into a sort of historical unconscious where chaotic and violent drives that underlie everything cry out to be tamed and civilized. There are some odd choices: Lady Macbeth thinking over alone, in the original, things that are in store, is shown here with her husband present; Macbeth is shown to kill not only King Duncan, as in the original, but, personally, his opponent Macduff’s family, and finally Lady Macbeth herself, a famous suicide heretofore. The point is that nobody is alone, everybody is caught up in a general anxiety, everybody is prey to a generalized murderousness, imaged in Macbeth—he is not a man in the usual sense, he is the general murderousness, he murders everybody. The most powerful moment of the staging was the bringing in of Duncan’s body after his murder, the frail man whom we had earlier seen wobble in on crippled legs, now laid out on a board, under a sheet, with naked feet sticking out, borne in center stage under bright light, like an iconic martyr. For this moment Verdi writes a striking large ensemble with chorus—perhaps the greatest music of the opera—where everyone voices shock and grief, Macbeth and his Lady hypocritically, but perhaps not entirely so, beginning to realize the enormity of what they have done. Here the staging met the grandeur of the music exceptionally well.

Verdi's Macbeth, Chorus. Photo Erik Jacobs.
Verdi's Macbeth, Chorus. Photo Erik Jacobs.

Boston Lyric Opera’s new Music Director David Angus led a well paced, expressive performance, drawing excellent playing from the orchestra—spidery string articulations, sonorous woodwinds, splashy trumpets in duo towards the end when a martial spirit is stirring.  The direction of the orchestra really held things together and put this piece across. The chorus, so important here, was less successful, not singing precisely together, making a somewhat ragged sound—work needs to be done in this area. And there was a real directorial mistake in having the chorus pump their fists in rhythm with the music when they become the new army seeking to overturn Macbeth and restore the nation to health. Verdi writes simple but sincere major-mode music here, and the singers just need to sound as though they believe in what they are singing—no antics. Baritone Daniel Sutin rendered Macbeth with a strong and resonant voice, with a nice edge to it, though the voice got a bit tiring to listen to after a while, and at the end was sounding strained. Sutin began to seem monotonous, a matter at once of voice and characterization, which was forceful but too simple and not really vital. He tended to look down or within much of the time—one hardly ever saw his eyes. Soprano Carter Scott is a big woman who looked good in her close-fitting dress slit up the leg, and she threw herself into the part, with plenty of eye contact and dramatic changes of facial expression. She has a big voice, quite pleasant in the middle range and at the middle dynamic level, but high notes tend to be sung loud and screechy. This improved over the course of the opera, and Scott was exciting cutting through the big ensemble after Duncan’s death. Her singing overall is a bit crude for this music; it wants something more supple and focused (bring up Maria Callas on YouTube). Bass-baritone Darren K. Stokes is tall and attractive and has stage presence, but as Macbeth’s companion and then victim Banquo (Banco) he lacked the vocal resonance to match the other voices and fill the hall. He had a lovely farewell scene with his little son (Elijah Jean-Pierre), but the stage direction makes a mistake with his ghostly appearance after his murder, at the Macbeths’ dinner party—there was Banco/Stokes moving about and menacing Macbeth just as if he were a living combatant, looking just as he did alive, when something more spectral and uncanny is called for. Tenor Richard Crawley as Macduff stole the evening with a splendid rendition of his aria after the murder of Macduff’s family, Ah, la paterna mano—beautiful strong voice, beautiful control and articulation, passion, all that Verdi asks for.

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