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A Steely Edge

Lyric Opera
10/01/2010 -  and 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, 24, 30 October 2010
Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth
Thomas Hampson (Macbeth), Nadja Michael (Lady Macbeth), Leonardo Capalbo (Macduff), Stefan Kocán (Banquo), Carter Scott (Lady Banquo/Lady in Waiting), Konstantin Stepanov (Malcolm), Sam Handley (Servant/Assassin/Herald/Doctor), Evan Boyer (First Apparition), Jennifer Jakob (Second Apparition), Amanda Majeski (Third Apparition)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Donald Nally (Chorus Master), Robert Hanford (Concertmaster), Renato Palumbo (Conductor)
Barbara Gaines (Director), James Noone (Set Designer), Virgil C. Johnson (Costume Designer), Richard Jarvie (Wig Master and Makeup Designer), Robert Wierzel (Lighting Designer), Harrison McEldowney (Choreographer), Robin McFarquhar (Fight Director)

(© Dan Rest)

Enter the realm of witches and their prophesies. They are harbingers of gloomy and bloody news that will lead to the protagonist's eventual demise. And so the story goes.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago opens its new 2010-2011 season with Barbara Gaines' new fantastic production of Giuseppe Verdi's Macbeth. Filled with some of the Italian composer's greatest dramatic music from his early/middle period, the opera loosely follows William Shakespeare's 1611 play. As founder and director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Barbara Gaines brings another interesting interpretation to a timeless literary classic.

It is Gaines' desire to have this Macbeth transcend time, unlimited in scope thereby allowing her the freedom to choose the elements she feels appropriate for a dramatic interpretation. Set Designer James Noone who collaborates with Gaines focuses on steel as a symbolic backdrop to demonstrate the material can be formed and changed, taking on extremes of hot and cold, similar to the emotions and tensions found in mankind. The scenery features a series of curvilinear movable panels reminiscent of the fluid roofs found in architect Frank Gehry's nearby Pritzker Pavilion and Los Angeles' Disney Hall. While economical and authentic, the formed combinations to delineate the four acts (and scenes) is a tad blurred, especially for those with limited imaginations.

Upon conclusion of the brief prelude conducted by Italian maestro Renato Palumbo, two thick semi circular panels open up from the center of the stage to reveal a coven of witches appropriately dressed in shreds of darkly colored tattered clothes with disheveled hair. It is a fitting demonstration of Virgil C. Johnson's artistic visions. Donald Nally's chorus members sing with a sinister and morbid edge despite the fact that they lose synchronization in the second choral sequence which Mr. Palumbo corrects by ramping up the tempo to get everyone back on the same page.

Making her debut as Lady Macbeth is Nadja Michael who has carved out a niche for herself, taking on some of the most dramatic roles in the operatic canon. Dressed in a variety of Johnson's formal gowns, she steps up to the plate to deliver two of the most taxing arias. Her cavatina, “Vieni, t'affretta" is executed with intensity and vocal flair. It is quite amazing to hear the power emanating from this svelte German soprano carrying over the entire orchestra throughout those periods of immense forte. In particular, she excels best during the sotto voce sections of the score. As incredible she is in her projection, her steely edged vibrato becomes shrill when barreling through the highest notes. Nadja Michael executes her Sleepwalking Scene, "Una macchia e qui tuttora" with great pathos and searing strife, making it one of the greatest moments of the opera.

Having previously sung Germont in The Lyric's 2007 La Traviata and Athanaël from Massenet's Thaïs in 2002, Thomas Hampson wrings out the psychological underpinnings from the title character, singing the baritone role with a full-bodied richness. It is unsurpassed, especially in his soliloquy, "Mi si affaccia un pugnal?"

Three of the singers portraying Banquo, Macduff and Malcolm make their Lyric Opera debut. One of the impressive moments is Leonardo Capalbo’s Macduff singing his heartbreaking aria, "Ah, La Paterna Mano"; a declamation of sadness and hopelessness. This Italian-American tenor delivers his notes with pristine brilliancy, evidenced by a round of thunderous applause at the conclusion of the aria and during the curtain call.

Slovakian bass Štefan Kocán has abundant masculine quality which helps him express his Banquo as one who is both an unbridled and principled man. Accepting the throne in the end is Malcolm, sung by Uzbekistan native Konstantin Stepanov who masters the part sufficiently despite his somewhat thin tenor register which is overpowered by the orchestra and chorus.

The Barbara Gaines production is filled with the magic of flying witches and ghosts, cleverly tethered to guy wires that work flawlessly even though the effect is a bit overworked. A striking piece of coup de théâtre occurs when a chandelier floats down from the ceiling to have Banquo’s ghost suddenly pop out of the rather colorful and modernistic fixture. Striving to make her operatic mark, it seems Ms. Gaines finds the need to impress too much. This comes across as trying too hard, such as when she adds falling snow for only a few brief seconds before the curtain closes, suggesting an afterthought.

Everything on stage should help propel the action in order to make the story of Macbeth intelligible and understandable, yet some of the elements in this production make Macbeth more confusing. Of particular note is the final witches' chorus (albeit only a handful) as they sing "Ondine e Silfidi" while Lady Macbeth plays ball with the children of Banquo (?). One of the most beautiful pieces in the opera, the harp accompaniment is missing (maybe it is my poor hearing). And even though the time range is universal in nature, the chorus members look more like prisoners from a Russian internment camp, rather than Englishmen and Scotsmen.

Macbeth shines in many ways: an energized pit, resounding choral sequences, top-notch singers and innovative special effects. In the end, however, this Macbeth has its few weaknesses.

Christie Grimstad



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