By Lawrence A. Johnson
Chicago’s Lyric Opera opened its 2021-22 season Friday night with Verdi’s Macbeth, the first performance on its stage since the Covid-19 pandemic forced the historic closure of the company 18 months ago. (For the record, the last Lyric performance with an audience was that of Puccini Madame Papillon March 8, 2020.)
As the pandemic persisted, new health restrictions were in place for participants. All clients were required to present photo ID and proof of vaccination or recent negative Covid test before being admitted. The process was handled efficiently and professionally, at least at the entrance to the press. Once inside, guests are required to wear masks at all times, which almost all members of the public have adhered to except those who enjoy drinks in the lobby before the curtain or during intermission. .
Despite the understandable caution, there was a packed house and a clear sense of occasion. The new seats looked fresh and stylish, and CEO, CEO and Chairman Anthony Freud and Board Chair Sylvia Neil greeted the audience with full introductory speeches. Freud noted that the reopening marked “the beginning of a new era for lyrical opera”.
We live in hope. Yet while there were moments of superb vocalism on Friday, this new production by Verdi Macbeth felt more like a continuation of the old (recent) era, with an inspired cast having to contend with problematic staging that too often hurt their performances. In the end, Verdi’s beautiful vocals and music won the day, but it was a question of who was going to prevail for most of the evening.
With Macbeth Verdi began to chart a new course, eliminating outdated genre traditions to create works that more closely associate music with drama. Macbeth brought a new degree of emotional depth and psychological complexity to opera, qualities that will be fully realized in future works by Verdi such as Rigoletto and Otello.
Shakespeare’s story of would-be homicidal royals whose relentless ambition leads to serial murder, insanity and death takes place against a grim backdrop of warring tribes, corrupt and unstable rulers, relentless violence and murder of innocent people. You know, kinda like living in Chicago today.
The preference of director David McVicar and his set designer John Macfarlane for gloomy and gloomy staging has worked successfully in previous lyrical productions such as The Team Atmosphere Il Trovatore and a blood Elektra.
Unfortunately, this is not the case with their new Macbeth (a co-production with the Canadian Opera Company). This is in part due to the visual monotony of the relentlessly dark monochrome single ensemble. Even more debilitating are some intrusive directorial vanities that have repeatedly watered down the drama and eclipsed the singers.
The setting is a cost-effective unitary ensemble of a crumbling “Presbyterian” Scottish chapel with rows of benches where McVicar places all the action; no castle, no sparkling banquet hall, no blasted heather, no Birnam wood, no witch camp (we have a cauldron). The director makes plausible arguments for this scenic vanity in the program note, but the result is visually mind-numbing with the relentless gray-green darkness that makes Verdi’s tight 2.5-hour job seem like a very long evening. David Finn’s lighting was so dark for much of the first act that you had to concentrate on figuring out who and where the singers were.
The practical effect of the set was that the actors had to maneuver awkwardly between the rows of benches that took up much of the center stage. And having lead characters singing their most crucial tunes while they sit in the front row isn’t exactly a captivating visual.
After the intermission the benches were thankfully removed and the last two acts provided a bit more variety of lighting and design, the walls turned in act 3 so one faces the nave rather than at the back of the church.
If the stage design was unnecessary and monotonous, McVicar’s vanity was much more damaging to have a trio of creepy kids continually surrounding the action. The director is quoted in the program note as saying he believes the Macbeth’s thirst for power stems from the fact that they don’t have children.
To represent this questionable proposition, McVicar prominently inserted the extras of the (unnamed) child throughout the action – menacingly pointing knives, playing games with the Macbeths, and even presenting the couple with a fetus. bloodied and a child’s coffin – unnecessary visual distractions and constant training the unfolding drama. Surprisingly, McVicar even has the boring kids at the top of the stage Macbeth and Lady Macbeth during their most important tunes. By the end of Act 1, Macbeth was ready to send the sea urchin trio off with his sword.
Craig Colclough is the third Lyric Opera singer booked for the title role after Luca Salsi and Roman Burdenko each canceled for “personal reasons.” Colclough’s bass-baritone isn’t a thing of tonal beauty – a beefy, lacking Italian-style tone on top. He also seemed somewhat undernourished in that role – the one he sang at the Met – pushing his voice loudly in key dramatic moments.
Yet give the singer credit for always giving it their all in a dramatic way and for that alone he deserved more than the polite applause he garnered on his encore. Colclough has brought full commitment to the role of Homicide Macbeth, most notably in its searing intensity during the banquet where he is threatened by the specter of Banquo. The singer also manifested Macbeth’s conflict of conscience – as much as McVicar’s distractions allowed – and was at his best in “Pieta, rispetto” as Macbeth reflects on losing all consolation in his old age due to his bad feelings. actions.
Even more than usual, this production is dominated by Sondra Radvanovsky’s Lady Macbeth who gives this capricious production its most beautiful vocal moments. One of our lead singing actresses, she delivered an utterly compelling characterization, recounting Lady Macbeth’s downfall from compelling throne contender to homicidal co-conspirator and, finally, compulsive handwashing basket case. Radvanovsky’s voice remains undamaged, the soprano throwing oars of rich Verdian tones at strong moments, unfolding the depth of the mezzo chest voice in “The Luce Tongue” and rising above the massed ensembles of exciting way.
The ever-reliable bass-baritone Christian Van Horn was a distinguished and sonorous Banquo. His interpretation of the destiny-laden “Come dal ciel precipita” was rich in foreboding and beautifully sung.
As Macbeth’s nemesis, Macduff – here a sort of confrontational antihero – Joshua Guerrero received the most enthusiastic ovation of the evening during his lyrical opera debut. The native of Las Vegas showed a juicy Italian tenor in his only aria (“Ahi la paterno mano!”) Lamenting the murder of his family by Macbeth.
Matthew Vickers displayed a resounding tenor during his company debut as Malcolm. Ryan Opera Center members Anthony Reed, Maria Novella Malfatti, and Denis Velez were effective as a trio of Appearances.
Moritz Junge’s costumes were an eclectic yet largely effective mix of eras, ranging from Puritan church attire to Napoleonic military uniforms.
The unison of the crossed slaps on the knees and chest of the church witches / women in the opening scene was breathtaking in its inanity. McVicar’s ineradicable colleague Andrew George retains his title of worst choreographer in captivity.
There was a certain lack of synchronization between the pit and the singers at the start of opening night. But during his late debut as musical director, Enrique Mazzola was a worthy supporter of Verdi’s bubbling score. The pivotal dramatic moments unfolded with startling intensity and the large late act ensembles were exhilarating with their sonic impact and tonal splendor.
Macbeth until October 9. lyricopera.org
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