Our recent sojourn upstate was punctuated by two very different theatrical experiences – the dramatically reimagined Oklahoma! at Bard SecondStage, and the opening night of Verdi’s masterful Macbeth, at Glimmerglass.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) wrote Macbeth in 1847; it was his initial foray into translating Shakespeare from theatrical stage to operatic stage. (He would later do the same with Otello and Falstaff). Verdi collaborated with Italian librettist Francesco Piave (1810-1876), with whom he would also collaborate on Rigoletto, La Traviata and Simon Boccanegra. Most of these operas are perhaps better known than Macbeth, which is something of shame as it is a riveting and compelling piece of work.
When approaching Macbeth the play vs. the opera, it is best to remember that the play belongs to Macbeth, while the opera belongs to Lady Macbeth. Strong players (or singers) are essential for both, but the male performance must carry the play and the leading lady must carry the opera. This was thrown into stark relief in the Glimmerglass production, which succeeds largely on the masterful performance of Melody Moore as Lady Macbeth.
Macbeth stars baritone Eric Owens in the title role. Owens has done wonderful work in the past, but he is primarily a singer, and most directors seem to forget that opera demands acting as well. Though his voice is powerful, it lacks emotional range, and as an actor Owens is utterly hopeless. Rotund and bearing a striking resemblance to the late Tor Johnson, Owens seems to have only one facial expression as his stock-in-trade: uncomfortable surprise. His Macbeth spends several hours as if he just realized a mouse ran up his trouser leg, and it does his singing and the production no favors.
Banquo is much better served by Soloman Howard, who brings a sense of gravitas and vulnerability to the role. His singing, at times, seems less sure than is ideal, but he does manage to hold the stage by the tone of his voice and his considerable stage presence. Strong, too, was Nathan Milholin in the thankless role of the doctor who observes Lady Macbeth’s mad wanderings. He served as a valuable stabilizing element to Moore’s stagecraft.
However, the evening certainly belonged to Moore and her magnificent Lady Macbeth. Her singing was a revelation, and her performance deeply affecting and memorable. All too often (in Shakespeare or Verdi), we are served a one-note Lady Macbeth, but Moore clearly understood the arc of the character, and the many conflicting emotions that drive her early ambition and her later madness. On top of that, Moore has a compelling presence, charisma to spare, and a quality of glamor that makes her eminently watchable. This is a singer who will make a considerable mark.
Joseph Colaneri conducted the score competently, but unevenly. At times, it seemed as if he did not pay proper attention to the entire orchestra, or integrate the vocals with the music seamlessly. However, the music itself is so wonderful, stirring and majestic that these problems of technique are forgiven.
Perhaps the major misstep of the evening is the direction by Anne Bogart and choreography by Barney O’Hanlon. Bogart sets the production in what appears to be the era between World Wars, but, once that conceit is in place, seems to do nothing with it. It is not a comment on fascism per se, nor on nationalism. She peppers the stage with effectively lit (by Robert Wierzel) refugees … but where does that fit in with Macbeth? In addition, the murder of Banquo is committed by thugs in bowler hats and Halloween masks, carrying both rather tony walking sticks along with clubs. Laurel and Hardy Go to Hell may be an interesting idea, but it does have to tie in with the overall concept to make any sense.
Confusing, too, was Bogart’s concept of the Weird Sisters (or witches). Normally three in number, Bogart serves us 12, all of whom seem to dress like dowdy spinsters straight from Agatha Christie. This does seem to diminish their power to frighten and mesmerize, and the multi-national nature and broad age-range of the witches seems to add to the confusion. (Perhaps they are all part of the Coven Exchange Plan? Who knows?) The sisters play other roles, suggesting evil omens throughout Verdi’s operatic cosmos, but we never get a handle on who they are or why they are menacing.
The staging is achieved with a minimal set – a rotating wall denoting swanky interiors, and a dark room painted with enormous roses for the mad scene. It all works surprisingly well … but it doesn’t always play as theater. In many senses, this is a superb concert performance of Macbeth rather than an overall successful theatrical experience. With that caveat in mind, Macbeth makes for an enjoyable evening at the opera and worth a trip to Cooperstown.