Friday, November 11, 2011

A fair (and foul) Macbeth

Carter Scott parties down as Lady Macbeth.

When I ponder the Boston Lyric Opera's new production of Verdi's Macbeth (through this Sunday at the Schubert), I'm inevitably reminded of a line from the play itself: a production so foul and so fair I have not seen.

For on the one hand, in purely musical terms, this may be BLO's strongest work yet. The cast is remarkable in vocal terms (as usual), with the leads boasting satisfyingly big Verdi voices, and the chorus (as always) in superb shape. What's new this time around is that the sounds from the pit are just as striking as those from the stage: new Music Director David Angus has settled into his role and begun to work his magic, and the orchestra has responded with a bold, grandly modeled sound that's new at the BLO.

But on the other hand (and alas, there is one), stage director David Schweizer, who delivered a brilliant Emperor of Atlantis just last spring, has styled the opera as a black, Brechtian comedy, and I'm afraid Macbeth just doesn't work that way.   I can understand, however, how he imagined it might have: the combination of bel canto arias and the Macbeths' deadly intrigue lends Verdi's early hit a certain cognitive dissonance to modern ears, and what's more, the composer (and his librettists, Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei) have transformed the Bard's grotesque trio of witches into a proletarian mob (who, in a nod to their Shakespearean source, often sing in three-part harmony).

The resulting amalgam of nineteenth-century populism and Shakespeare's brutal existentialism is an uneasy one, I admit.  And even though Schweizer has restyled Verdi's vox populi as a kind of Brecht-by-way-of-Les-Miz mob, his concept might have worked, I think, if he had not also recast Lady Macbeth as a villainess nearly comic in her calculations, and her husband as more nebbish than warrior (at least until the final scenes).  These two aren't just puppets in the hands of historical (rather than mystical) fate; they're also too often cartoonish tin-pot dictators; a Mr. and Mrs. Arturo Ui lost on the Scottish moors.  Unfortunately, however, the drama of Macbeth depends entirely on the moral stakes for this pair - after all, it's guilt that drives Lady Macbeth mad (why she loses it in this production remains a mystery).  To be blunt, we have to have some sympathy for the play's murderous heroes (which Shakespeare works overtime to ensure, against all odds); otherwise, the rise and fall of their regime can't grip us.

Still, there are those voices - and that music.  This isn't, however, Verdi at his maturity; in Macbeth, he is expanding on bel canto, but doesn't quite transform it as he would just a few years later in works like Il trovatore and La traviata.  Still, there's considerable interest in the arias, particularly Lady M's, which dominate the first act and which leap unexpectedly to the top of the soprano range (perhaps in a bid to intimate the singer's inner instability).  Carter Scott - at left with Daniel Sutin - generally pulled these off well, I thought, despite a few scrapes here and there (they shouldn't, actually, sound technically secure anyway, that's the point), and elsewhere Scott boasted a big, plush instrument redolent with a vibrato that might have been a bit much elsewhere but worked for Verdi.  As I explained, dramatically I didn't agree with her performance - but I don't really blame her for that, as you can find on the Web evidence that she can do far better (there's a Youtube of her mad scene from another production that's quite riveting).

Meanwhile, as her murderous husband, Daniel Sutin deployed a complex and richly resonant baritone, but his doomed diffidence didn't work until close to the end of the opera (he should actually be a warrior whose reckless barbarity Lady M. is trying to unleash).  Elsewhere in the cast, Darren K. Stokes acquitted himself well vocally as a somewhat stolid Banquo (below), while tenor Richard Crawley briefly stopped the show with Macduff's big aria.

As I stated earlier, the chorus was likewise in fine shape vocally - and a few of Schweizer's (or perhaps designer John Conklin's) gambits, such as the hoisting of yet another royal body bag over the action, were chillingly effective.  But the crowds onstage were sometimes a distraction from the stripped-down action of the drama, and the mob's hollow-eyed puppetmaster act slowly wore thin.  I can understand how BLO thought, after the brilliant success of Atlantis, that Schweizer's sardonic sensibility might have pulled together the disparate elements of Macbeth. But the gallantly gonzo fatalism of Atlantis - which never tries to seriously style its Hitler factotum as a tragic hero - is actually a world away from Shakespeare's aesthetic stance.  And thus, while Verdi fans may be happy to drink in David Angus's accomplished take on the score, I can't really hail this Macbeth.

Banquo and Duncan return from the dead in Macbeth.

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