Verdi’s Macbeth at Lyric Opera, 2010-2011

We’ve had Lyric Opera subscriptions for more than 30 years now. First I had one and my wife and I have subscribed since we were first married. Lyric has produced Verdi’s 1847 opera roughly once every ten years over that period so until last night’s performance, the first in our 2010-2011 Lyric subscription, I had seen, I guess, three different productions of Macbeth at Lyric Opera. My recollection is that they were all snoozes so I looked forward to the performance with a certain amount of foreboding.

My expectations were not only exceeded; they were knocked out of the ballpark. This new production of Macbeth is one of the most vibrant and exciting new productions I’ve seen at Lyric in a long time.

The Italians sometimes say that Macbeth is l’opera senza amore, the opera without love, both for its lack of a love story and for the darkness of its content. I think that the creators of this new production must have taken that as a challenge and made the production as sexy as possible.

The sets, effects, and lighting are all riveting. I found the fire effect that opens the opera in Act I, Scene i particularly fascinating. The picture above doesn’t really do it justice. It really must be seen in motion to be appreciated.

The costumes of our Lady Macbeth, Nadja Michael, were the most daring I believe I’ve ever seen at Lyric short of outright nudity (someday I’ll post on my views of nudity at Lyric but that’s a subject for another time). Viz.:

This first act costume was a lowcut, flame-colored, floor length dress made of a jersey sort of material that clung to every inch of Ms. Michael’s body. She is in very good shape, I might add. This and the by my count five other costumes she wore, mostly negligeeish sort of affairs, left little doubt of that. I might just be showing my age but I thought that these ultra-sexy outfits verged on being distractions: Ms. Michael’s vital performance was the highlight of the work, her voice one of the most powerful and controlled women’s voices we’ve heard at Lyric in some time.

Indeed, all of the performances last night were, at the very least, solid and effective. The only weak spot was the expected weak staging of the chorus, a staple of Lyric Opera performances.

Don’t let that minor quibble influence you: I really don’t have enough superlatives to give to this new production. I saw a scandalously large number of empty seats in the house. Tickets are available!

The Critics

The Tribune’s John Von Rhein liked it, too:

Forget the kilts, plaids and tartans. Forget the painted-canvas castle walls. Forget all the quaint storybook clutter with which Verdi’s “Macbeth” is usually saddled.

Barbara Gaines, in her thoughtful and gripping new production at Lyric Opera of Chicago, has filtered this rip-roaring early Verdi work through her own singular vision of contemporary theater. The familiar tragedy about a bloody power grab in medieval Scotland becomes, in the Chicago director’s hands, a timeless domestic drama about a horribly dysfunctional couple who can’t stop murdering their way to the top. Think “The Sopranos,” but with real sopranos.

The new “Macbeth,” which opened Lyric’s 56th season Friday night at the Civic Opera House, was a relatively safe bet on the company’s part. By assigning the staging to Gaines, general director William Mason turned over the reins to a director who had never staged an opera before. But Gaines, founder and director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, hardly needed to brush up on her Bard, and she clearly is respectful of Verdi’s intentions. She put her ideas at the service of the opera rather than the other way around, unlike David Alden in his notorious, Eurotrashy “Macbeth” at Lyric in 1999, the last time the company presented the work.

Without singing actors as fiercely invested in their roles as Thomas Hampson as the ambitious Macbeth and Nadja Michael as the conniving Lady Macbeth, Gaines’ concept no doubt would have been much less effective. The American baritone and German soprano (the latter in an impressive Lyric debut) made a really sexy power couple for whom lust for the throne clearly was an aphrodisiac. They received worthy support from a strong supporting cast and conductor Renato Palumbo, a seasoned Verdian in full command of his forces.

Andrew Patner of the Sun-Times is more critical:

The distinguished American Thomas Hampson brings his well-known intelligence and care to the title role, especially with the Italianized Shakespeare lyrics. But his voice does not have the depth that this role requires, and his elegance belies his character’s increasingly animalistic behavior. It’s not surprising then that the singer’s greatest moments are heard in Macbeth’s aria that comes closest to introspection, Act Four’s “Pieta, rispetto, amore” (“Compassion, respect, love”) sung as Birnam Wood begins its fateful march on him and his tyranny.

In her Lyric debut, German soprano Nadja Michael enacted both sides of her reputation — a striking, athletic physical presence paired with a voice that frequently seems out of control or oddly matched to the score. Costumed by Virgil C. Johnson to bring out Michael’s own fierceness and that of her sick and scheming character (and her resemblance to Annie Lennox), Michael consistently undercuts her hold on your visual attention with a voice too often too large and almost always at least slightly flat. Those fortunate to have seen the late Piero Cappuccilli and Grace Bumbry (Lyric’s first Lady Macbeth, in 1969) and Shirley Verrett in these roles had to wonder how Friday’s audience was able to fully appreciate Verdi’s great and so often subtle accomplishment in this, one of his breakthrough works as both a composer and dramatist.

That parallels a discussion I had with my wife during intermission in which I expressed some dissatisfaction with Thomas Hampson’s Macbeth, much along the lines the Mr. Patner notes.

Chicago Stage Review:

As far as we are concerned, the ‘Macbeth’ of this work’s title is definitely of the female variety. Lady Macbeth drives the entire plot here, and the intensity of her ambition is nothing short of sociopathic. We first encounter her in an empty chamber illuminated by a hundred candles, the flames and German soprano Nadja Michael’s magnificent voice reflected by the curving wall right into the very heart of the audience. A tremendously gifted physical actress with an impressive vocal range (she began her career as a mezzo), Michael delivers a sinuous, sensual performance that has the audience riveted whenever she takes the stage. Her Lady Macbeth has a blow-torch intensity and the heat between her and Hampson is palpable. No wonder poor Macbeth is driven to murder and destruction, despite being haunted by his ill-conceived actions! His overwhelming passion for his lady and her unbridled quest for power completely blow away all reason and logic. When in the course of the murderous spree that clears his path to the Scottish throne, Macbeth’s conscience causes him to falter; Lady Macbeth picks up the dagger and finishes the job herself, then coolly wipes off the blade on her blood-soaked white gown. Positively electrifying.

Supported by an amazing cast, including stand-out tenor Leonard Capalbo as Macduff; this performance was everything an opening night of world-class opera should be. The Lyric Opera chorus brings complexity and depth to the epic crowd scenes (in Verdi’s Macbeth the three witches become a coven) and the entire production is borne on the shoulders of the fantastic Lyric orchestra, under the direction of internationally acclaimed opera conductor (and Chicago favorite) Renato Palumbo. Despite a few clunky scene changes in the early going and pacing that lagged a bit in the 4th act (sure to be tightened up as the production matures) Macbeth is an absolutely dazzling experience.

Chicago Theater Blog:

Although Hampson is billed as the star of the show, and he certainly delivers, the real standout is Nadja Michael as Lady Macbeth. This woman is absolutely outstanding, with a stunning presence anytime she’s onstage. The amount of endurance and vocal strength required to sing her four arias must be a harrowing task. Yet she does it without ever dropping her energy. And although the production is in Italian (with English super-titles), Michael’s acting and vocal inflection are paired so perfectly that you know what she is saying even if you have absolutely no clue what she is saying.

Leonardo Capalbo, as Macbeth’s foe Macduff, executes an aria in the fourth act that outdoes all the other male cast members. Sung right after he discovers Macbeth has slain Macduff’s entire family, it is a powerful and tragic piece that is infused with real heart, mourning and rage.

Unfortunately, Štefan Kocán’s portrayal of Banquo. Kocan is not as impressive – he has a uniquely guttural voice that, while I appreciate its distinctiveness, serves as a distraction.

I thought that Kocán’s Banquo had an intensity that I appreciated and, indeed, missed in Hampson’s Macbeth.

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