The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

NPR: LOC 2010-11 opener - Verdi's Macbeth - attempting making virtue of the pedantic, insipid. New production (Barbara Gaines). Renato Palumbo.

Lyric Opera of Chicago opened 2010-2011 with Verdi’s Macbeth - first time for Macbeth to be produced there in eleven years. There were several strong elements in play here, one that it was the season opener, and in it featuring a traditional modern abstract production by Barbara Gaines – founder and director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater. She has developed a fine reputation as such in the Windy City. Reliable not to send Lyric off on a limb again or on opening night, she made her operatic debut with this. According to press, she brought out detail most likely known just to people familiar with Shakespeare and thorough story background - much there also merely for sake of visual spectacle.

Lyric’s patrons seemed to be likely getting best of all possible worlds – a production simultaneously looking up to date, displaying sophisticated special effects and playing it safe to reward itself for being faithful to the text; no traditionalists other than the die-hard would take offense. There then was a respected producer from the community and two big names on the circuit as lead protagonists and particularly in Nadja Michael’s case, who look good. It seemed however as though there was perhaps extra detail, a little sophomorically over-explanatory, distracting attention from what should be at heart – and without developing meaningful frisson with the same. It ultimately seemed good news to still many traditional patrons that Lyric was not reviving David Alden’s production from last time.

Could it then be worthwhile John Van Rhein (Chicago Tribune) knows well matching, parallel social opprobrium up there to ours to make it good for Lyric to never revive the David Alden? Houston Grand Opera, sharing Catherine Maliftano as Lady Macbeth, played it in late 1997. Asher Fisch conducted the Alden production for Chicago well - then to return this past season to Lyric for Ballo in maschera. From listening to all three relevant broadcasts, the one most compellingly dramatic was Lyric’s 1999 Macbeth. Macbeth likely suited Fisch’s abilities, Verdian potential better than Ballo, latter that for its enigmatic, shifting character, found Fisch slightly aloof.

Renato Palumbo’s conducting of Macbeth from Lyric was simply erratic, unclear as to what it wanted to significantly bring to light. Fatuously tentative attempt at making calibration with Gaines’s overly busy stage direction was likely an issue, apart from whatever meaningful Gaines brought up on terms of psychological complexity, concerning the Macbeths. Nadja Michael’s accommodating Verdi’s music to her own vocal problems also confused matters.

Thomas Hampson (Macbeth) amidst this cast sounded most of all as though operating in a vacuum. Musical, dramatic intelligence he invests in what he sings still manifests itself. Macbeth reassuringly is the more passive member of the murderous couple; Gaines likely enhanced the effect by bringing to the fore metaphorically much sexual tension between the two, mostly at Macbeth’s expense - sexual frustration, too, with it perhaps some of the only thrill that Macbeth can get while being goaded on by his wife.

Since being filmed twelve years ago in Zurich again as Macbeth, Hampson’s voice has naturally darkened; strain while attempting high notes now accompanies subtle change to quality of timbre and weight. His opening duet, ‘Due vaticini’ with Banquo evinced fine line, steadiness, noble poise. Dignified wariness, foreboding informed first extended scena with Lady Macbeth – but compromised by insufficient power for several notes above the staff and streamlining of inevitable cabaletta.
Apparitions of murdered boys found Hampson confidently defiant but with little tether from orchestra pit upon which to anchor his lines. Trickier still, similar held true for his banquet scene hallucinations. Hampson descended to engaging in Sprechstimme for confronting second vision (and then somewhat again during ‘Vendetta’ duet closing Act Three). One listening keenly could reckon early on in dialogue - first between Macbeth and hit men - attempt by Hampson to fish out where (musico-) dramatic focus might be or from among whoever on the sidelines one might be able to gin or cook up some..

Hampson’s effort to capture Macbeth’s repossession of noble emotions rang slightly hollow. Good affectation of Verdian line for “Pieta, rispetto amore occurred, but compromised by fatigue, hollow mid-range, and undesirable tendency to fletcherize several phrase endings. David Pountney, who directed Macbeth at Zurich for Hampson (and Paoletta Marrocu), watching his production marks return to a more auteur approach to staging opera – without going so far out on a limb as David Alden, or more vulgar, Martin Kusej (Munich) – production in which Naidja Michael also took part. Even as glibly conducted by Franz Welser-Most – Pountney evinced clear sense of where all dialogue, insinuation, the dramatic argument lead. Hampson capitalized well on much in Zurich; fortunately numerous vestiges of his interpretation of Macbeth remained well intact here.

If evaluated on vocal power, swanky good looks alone, Nadja Michael (Lyric debut) is just ‘the babe’ for Lady Macbeth. She freely offered both in spades, plus fine agility up and down the range – except for glaringly insecure high notes. For part hanging out in a slightly higher tessitura than is hers to handle, there resulted issues as to how to negotiate characteristics of this part less depended upon than usual to sell the soprano lead.

Letter reading was haughty, grandiose. “Vieni t’affretta” started out well, but became thick, wobbly; eventual sag to line revealed take on this number low on steel, sustained vehemence, Albeit for handful of strong accents, cabaletta sounded equally tentative. Approach to following duet with Macbeth came across laid back. “La luce langue” from both Michael and Palumbo became a shapeless morass, essentially making nonsense of attempt at forza for anti-heroic coda to it – line having already petered out.

Openly ridiculous was – as reported by Seen and Heard - Lady Macbeth’s starting Brindisi both staged as and sounding besotted – idea, no doubt, but one easy to sum up as what a neophyte must have brought in to committee. With this music, way it is marked, it made little sense - evident not yet producer’s ability to develop element of frisson between text and layered on commentary just as of yet. Attempt to restore calm, starting second verse, with over-emphasized hesitations to start each line also heavily strained credulity. “Una macchia” (sleepwalking scene) Michael rendered authoritatively, but for frequently melodramatic emphases. Intonation frequently soured near and above the break.

Italian-American tenor Leonardo Capalbo made a conventional Macduff – too rushed to settle in vocally – to effectively, early on, help announce foul play having just occurred. Recitative and ‘Ah la paterna mano’ sounded full of ardor, with good line, but all slightly heavy-handed. Clipping of cabaletta to follow between both Capalbo and Palumbo was cheap, vulgar. Konstantin Stepanov emerged sounding slightly thin as Malcolm. Slovakian bass Stefan Kocan with dark, grainy timbre, met Hampson favorably for first scene together. He tended to slightly push his voice toward achieving grander scale, resulting in tight vocal production – and then lost good intonation on several low notes. “Come dal ciel precepita”, accompanied well, Kocan made carry expansive weight, gravitas, foreboding. Fully long-breathed legato seems to slightly evade him, even with fine cultivated ability to lyrically phrase Banquo’s music at his behest.

Synchronization issues have been pointed out about the new Barbara Gaines production, concerning how to better move witches’ choruses around expeditiously. It was also Renato Palumbo’s responsibility to insist the stage direction not overdo or ‘work so hard’ much animated gesture occurring on stage. Even with mostly good choral and orchestral precision at his disposal, Palumbo hardly brought any identifiable concept to bear upon Macbeth. Whatever the staging conceits, Duncan’s music during Act One did not gradually enter and exit as it played, yet is precisely indicated to do just that.

Murderers’ chorus in residential area park was sufficiently, consistently loud to awaken city block nearby. At times, some Italianita was evident in assisting shaping rhythms, vocal lines. Distortion of accompanying rhythms opening concerted ensemble closing Act Two forced, without anything stopping along the way, Thomas Hampson had to suddenly make funny segue, elision for all to hang together right. Such action made effective something clearly resembling new change of meter – still unfamiliar to me.

Obsequious to singers, Palumbo was most frequently the type to just blithely follow along, while robbing this music of much of its solemnity, terror, its mystery and grandeur. Elaborate was the tethering of flying witches, ghosts attached to guywire above the stage while leaving more imposing, pressing vocal rhetoric de-tethered from orchestral support below, including a crudely pushed sa-shay accompanied sleepwalking scene Choral preparation was left very reliably up to Donald Nally – undercut by minimal observation of Verdi’s dynamic markings. Palumbo remained content to conduct as accompanist to both singers and this production instead of leading Verdi’s Macbeth.

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