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Macbeth at Washington National Opera

Paoletta Marrocu as Lady Macbeth, Washington National Opera, photo by Karin Cooper
Paoletta Marrocu as Lady Macbeth, Washington National Opera, photo by Karin Cooper
Verdi's Macbeth is the least worthy of the composer's three settings of Shakespeare plays, but it is hardly fair to compare this homely little opera to the composer's final masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff. Macbeth, the earliest of the three, has some beautiful melodies, some dramatic scenes, effective choral writing, and glimmers of what Verdi wouuld eventually accomplish -- the elimination of tired bel canto conventions or, short of that, the ingenious incorporation of those conventions into a dramatically convincing whole. A new production of the opera brings the Washington National Opera's 2007-08 2006-07 season to a close, and it was good to hear this opera again in Washington, last performed by the company in 1981, at Saturday's opening night. It fulfilled the WNO's commitment to the Shakespeare in Washington Festival, following a Falstaff on methamphetamines from the Kirov Opera in February. Arguably the best of the Verdi-Shakespeare operas, Otello, has been missing in action (with only a fine glimpse of the final act last season), as it is just about everywhere in the world right now.

Lado Ataneli and Paoletta Marrocu in Macbeth, Washington National Opera, photo by Karin Cooper
Lado Ataneli and Paoletta Marrocu in Macbeth, Washington National Opera, photo by Karin Cooper
The best part of the evening was watching conductor Renato Palumbo in action. He has recently been appointed General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, and he shaped the opera beautifully. The orchestra's sound, especially the low brass, was pointed and crafted well to the singers. It was therefore even more disappointing that the singers were not always with Palumbo. This was the main problem with what was otherwise a vocally strong performance from baritone Lado Ataneli in the title role: he often rushed ahead of or dragged behind the beat, apparently heedless of direction from the pit. Bass Vitalij Kowaljow was an imperious and robust Banquo (especially in his final aria), and young American tenor John Matz made a favorable impression as Macduff.

Far and away, the best role in the opera is Lady Macbeth, whose music and dramatic scenes provide most of the reason to stage this opera at all. Soprano Paoletta Marrocu, who was quite good in the 2004 Andrea Chénier here, was a dramatically convincing and attractive Lady Macbeth. The sleepwalking scene ("Out, out, damned spot") and the banquest scene were examples of her fine acting. Vocally, she had the power necessary to communicate the bloody single-mindedness of this memorable character, except for some of the low passages, where she was completely covered. All evening long, however, something about her vocal production colored her pitch toward flatness. This was particularly painful in the brindisi, the toast during the banquet scene at the end of Act II, where the challenging staccato notes were badly out of tune.

Other Reviews:

Philip Kennicott, Verdi, Worth His Weight in Popcorn (Washington Post, May 14)

T. L. Ponick, Lavish WNO 'Macbeth' (Washington Times, May 14)

Maury D'Annato, I screen, you screen... (My Favorite Intermissions, May 12)
The best vocal contributions were from the chorus, especially in the Patria oppressa chorus that opens Act IV. A political chorus showing the heroic resolution of the common people in the face of tyranny, it is a stock Verdian gesture. This performance revealed just why Verdi became the champion of the cause of Italian independence, by giving it a sympathetic musical voice. The production, staged by Paolo Miccichè, was in the same overly busy, high-tech vein as the I Vespri Siciliani he directed in Washington in 2005. After a pointless opening scene during the overture, with what appeared to be the twin towers in a cityscape, the setting returned to an older time, but when exactly?

Verdi and his librettist, the mediocre but obedient Francesco Maria Piave, had already transformed Shakespeare's medieval Scotland into a sort of fusion with Catholic Italy. Much of the imagery in the scrims that wriggled with computer animation was drawn not from Scotland but from the stained glass and Gothic architecture of late medieval France, notably the nave and vault of Chartres and the flamboyant style of the Sainte-Chapelle. Any possible scariness of some of the centeral witches, supernumeraries who wore two-faced masks with long gray hair, was undermined by the general concept of the coven, costumed in white with parasols, beach balls, and veiled hats. Were they witches or extras in The Great Gatsby, or perhaps they were reusing the props and costumes of the chorus in Democracy from 2005? Where were the croquet mallets?

The Witches in Macbeth, Washington National Opera, photo by Karin Cooper
The Witches in Macbeth, Washington National Opera, photo by Karin Cooper
While some of the computer-scrim effects were effective, just as many seemed ridiculous, none worse than the bloody sword that whirled onto the scrim during Macbeth's Act I dagger aria. A PowerPoint "b-b-b-boing" sound effect would have been perfectly appropriate for the image. Banquo's ghost, who appeared as a huge red figure on the scrim, was equally clumsy. Much of the imagery had an apparently surrealist intent, like the medieval chapel that sat atop huge, leathery tree roots, or the empty royal robe that appeared as King Duncan. It is a silent role, but having the Macbeths kneel to a wardrobe mannequin was absurd. This production offers much to enjoy, but if you can only see one of the operas now being performed by the Washington National Opera, we recommend Jenůfa instead.

The Washington National Opera's production of Macbeth has performances remaining on May 14, 17, 20, 23, 29, and June 2. It is the final opera of the company's season, so it is time to start thinking about next year's operas (.PDF file).


Anonymous said...

1) What's with the crowns? They wear them at night before they get the throne?
2) "2007-8 season" You attended this performance in your Tardis, obviously :)

Charles T. Downey said...

I think that photo is from Act II, when they are plotting to kill Banquo, after they are king and queen. Thanks for the correction, too.

Thomas Hogglestock said...

Went last night.

Your comments on the computer-scrim effects is right on the money.

For the most part I enjoyed Lady Macbeth but "covered" low notes is being generous. They were down right inaudible at times, and I was in row U. I also thought she had a rather unpleasant metallic sound in her middle register, especially in the banquest scene. But when she hit her big (loud) notes one could begin to understand why she has a career.