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When Wagnerians do Verdi

McCaw Hall
05/06/2006 -  and May 7, 10, 13, 14, 17, 19, 20
Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth
Gordon Hawkins (Macbeth)
Andrea Gruber (Lady Macbeth)
Burak Bilgili (Banquo)
Joseph Calleja (Macduff)
(Alternate cast May 7, 14, 19)
Seattle Opera Orchestra composed of members of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Nicola Luisotti (conductor)

The Seattle Opera’s thoroughness in approaching opera production is a fortunate component of their penchant for Wagner. On the day Macbeth opened, they took the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk to a new level by adding education, audience development, and professional development to the concept of a “joint work.” Along with their usual pre-opera lectures and post-opera question and answer period that day, they held the last full day of OPERA America’s annual conference, which they had hosted throughout the week.

This new production of Macbeth was commissioned, in part, because of the OPERA America conference, which is, in some ways, an odd decision. If opera professionals from across North America (and beyond) will be in the audience, it makes sense to do what you know best and most intimately, in this case, Wagner. But in some ways, despite Verdi’s reputation for rejecting foreign influences and Romantic narrative trends, this opera is not such a stretch for Wagnerians.

Like many of Verdi’s and Wagner’s works, Macbeth is large-scale grand opera that requires vocal powerhouses with great stamina. Unlike many of Verdi’s works, but like Wagner’s, Macbeth deals with the pagan supernatural. Robert Israel, the set and costume designer, said rather vaguely in an interview that Macbeth is similar to Wagner’s works in that it has multiple layers that are “pregnant with possibilities.” Various sources indicate that in Macbeth, Verdi was meticulously thorough in all the aspects Wagner delineates in his concept of the joint work: poetry, scenery, staging, action, and music. When Seattle Opera applied their habit of thoroughness in Wagner productions to this work by Verdi, it yielded primarily positive results.

Verdi’s love of Shakespeare is well-documented, and Verdi was concerned enough about how the play was adapted that he fired his first librettist, Francesco Maria Piave for failing to abridge “one of the greatest creations of man” in a manner that did it justice. Seattle Opera took this concern for language one step further by incorporating more of Shakespeare’s original text in the supertitles than would normally be in an English translation.

Visually, the designer seemed to spend a great deal of time on costumes and not enough on scenery. To emphasize the patriotic message Verdi wanted the audience to get out of Macbeth, the designer chose to have the characters in 19th century Italian costume with hints of their characters in the accessories (primarily Scottish tartans). The designer also put a lot of thought into the witches’ choreography and wardrobe; they were in bridal and funeral garb from different eras, to symbolize their eternal nature.

The designer didn’t remark on the scenery when interviewed, except to say that the time it would take to change the sets for realistic scenery would have slowed the narrative down to a crawl. So, he opted for a set that is starkly modern, with mostly-blank white walls, an industrial-looking metal door, and some sterile-looking white rocks. The blank monotony onstage is broken only by a cryptic painting of a skeletal primate on one section of a wall, props during the banquet scene, and one scene in which the walls literally bleed in sympathy with Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking confession. The contrast between the period costumes and modern staging is remarkable but not satisfyingly remarked upon.

When the general director was asked about the set (multiple times) in the Q & A session after the opera, he said simply that it was the designer’s vision, and it was meant to create a mood and psychological space. What it actually created, it seems, was confusion.

The performers generally acted their parts well. The main characters’ extreme actions are difficult to relate to, of course, but Gordon Hawkins, as Macbeth managed to make the deliberation and decision-making believable. Andrea Gruber could have been more nuanced as Lady Macbeth; it was difficult to see how anyone could mistake her for anything but a sociopath from the very beginning. But all others played their parts well, and the witches managed eeriness without ridiculousness, a true achievement.

It was in the music that the Seattle Opera got the most mixed results for their thorough efforts. Speight Jenkins made a point in his program notes and the Q&A session about Verdi’s disappointment with the original Lady Macbeth. Apparently, her singing was too beautiful, “clear, limpid, strong.” Verdi wanted singing that was more “devilish,” and the Seattle Opera wanted to accommodate his wishes. As Lady Macbeth, Andrea Gruber may have taken this direction too much to heart. It is certainly rare that a singer is able to adopt a different color for every note in an aria, but I can’t say I’d like to hear it again. In her lower range, her vibrato often got too wide, and she simply didn’t have the agility needed for her drinking song. There were times in the sleepwalking scene that we got a glimpse of a beautiful voice, which I imagine is the source of her successful career.
Gordon Hawkins, as Macbeth, and Burak Bilgili, as Banquo, left nothing to be desired in their roles. Hawkins’ refreshingly consistent voice was a pleasure to hear, and an interesting complement to Gruber’s adventurous interpretation. Bilgili sang with strength and clarity—none of the wide vibrato one fears from basses—and he was clearly experienced in his role.

Joseph Calleja, as Macduff, was certainly an audience favorite. The applause following his aria was the longest and heartiest of the evening, and after the opera, more than one patron asked the general director when Calleja would be in Seattle again. I personally thought his vibrato was a bit fast and shallow. But in a world where Josh Groban is popular, his better-supported borderline-bleating may be what audiences seek in tenors these days.

Nicola Luisotti, the conductor, was another audience favorite, and rightly so. Quite frankly, I have never seen such dynamic range in orchestra and chorus. The program mentions Luisotti’s concern for Verdi’s sotto voce markings, but no words can describe the chilling effect of these moments. He also filled the house with blasting fortissimos, and clearly had a strong relationship with soloists as well as the ensembles.

In an OPERA America session earlier in the day, learning expert Eric Booth taught those in attendance that “Bravo!” was originally used by English opera-goers to cheer risk-taking rather than accomplishment, which is what we cheer now. Taken as a complete work, Seattle Opera’s Macbeth deserved “Bravo!” in every sense of the word.

Rebecca Packard



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