by MICHAEL J. OPPERMAN
Verdi was a bad boss. On the day of the final dress rehearsal of a performance of Macbeth, one of the principals complained that they had already run-through the Act I duet 150 times. “I would not say that if I were you, for within half an hour it will be 151,” Verdi retorted. And he often budged in line at the airport. Okay, that last part isn’t true. But Verdi was a demanding composer, of himself and those with whom he worked. He was also prolific; Verdi wrote 26 operas. All but one before he was 46, when he accepted a seat in the Italian Parliament.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is half as long as Hamlet, making it a bit easier to adapt for opera. There are no secondary plots and the action is constant. A wonderful bloody melodrama for the stage. And this brings me to my first thought about the Minnesota Opera’s production of Macbeth. My only question about an otherwise compelling staging.
There is a quote from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead (speaking of Shakespeare):
“We’re more of the love, blood, and rhetoric school. Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three concurrent or consecutive. But we can’t give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory. They’re all blood, you see.”
In an early scene, Lady Macbeth (Brenda Harris) is reading a letter. The cursive words are projected in white at an angle on the stage, appearing as she sings. This effect, by Jason Hand (lighting designer) and Sean Nieuwenhuis (projection designer), is moving and a bit magical. Red slowly bleeds into the letters, then overruns their borders, the light pooling like blood onto the stage, flowing underneath Lady Macbeth. This use of lighting is breathtaking. I was surprised, after this commitment to blood that the murders take place offstage. This seems like a missed opportunity, particularly for the subject matter of Macbeth.
And my companion and I were startled by the other use of blood during the scene in which the witches summon a parade of specters for Macbeth (when he wants to know the future). The literalness of the specters seemed discordant – enormous heads projected behind the performers. One projection depicted a bloody head with rivers of blood pouring over its face. Disturbing and visceral, it seemed at odds with the staging. I expected more blood with my rhetoric.
The production values are astounding, as we’ve come to expect from the Minnesota Opera. Every time I see a production, I’m reminded of how fortunate we are to have the Minnesota Opera. I think that it can be easy to forget how few cities in the country have an opera, an orchestra, and musicians of such caliber. But I digress slightly.
Similar in some ways to the recent production of Hamlet (directed by Thaddeus Strassberger with whom director Joel Ivany worked during Verdi’s Nabucco), this staging of Macbeth has an ‘out of time-ness.’ Dislodged from its original 11th Century historical context and the Elizabethan milieu of its writing, the Minnesota Opera’s Macbeth is set in a speculative WWI-era Europe. Ivany and Camelia Koo’s (costume designer) commedia dell’arte approach to costuming for the witches includes gas masks, as well as a nod to the medieval beaked masks of plague doctors. Ivany and the creative team’s set is all cracked and rain-streaked concrete walls and menacing iron railings. Ivany’s desire to “arouse both fear and pity” (inspired by Aristotle’s Poetics) is definitely realized.
There is something inimitable about Verdi’s duets and choruses. Conductor Michael Christie and chorusmaster Rob Ainsley’s collaboration with the singers results in a stunning chorus. I felt the joined voices, particularly those of the witches, bodily. I recommend seeing the opera, if only for the chorus, which is a character unto itself. As usual, Brenda Harris is exceptional. In the performance I saw, she seemed to warm slowly into full clarity. By the end of Act I, her voice was clarion and emphatic. And Greer Grimsley’s bass-baritone was powerful and precise. Together, in those beautiful call-and-response duets that gradually overlap into pastiche of pathos (sorry about the alliteration), Harris and Grimsley are flesh for the bones and blood of the opera.
Ivany and the creative team’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth prompts an interesting discussion regarding the setting of the opera in a WWI-era world. What might the supernatural represent in this time, if not itself? Considering a reading of Macbeth through this historical lens, how are interpretations of ambition, usurpation, and conscience changed? And, finally, how do layers of translation* inform narrative, truth, history and art?
*Raphael Holinshed’s recording of the historical Macbeth’s (nicknamed Rí Deircc, or “the Red King”) taking of the throne in 1045 Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1577. Shakespeare’s retelling in his play in 1606. The opera by Verdi (and librettist Francesco Maria Piave) in 1846. And Ivany’s interpretation in 2014.
Macbeth by Guiseppe Verdi. Presented by the Minnesota Opera, January 25, 28, 30 and February 1 and 2, 2014. Information at http://www.mnopera.org