Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Tiny yet Mighty Macbeth

Verdi's Macbeth

Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble 
August 24, 2014 - East 13th Street Theater

The scheming couple
Photo credit: Brian Long
Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble has done it again. Maestro Christopher Fecteau’s adaptation of Verdi’s score to the chamber setting worked beautifully. The small orchestra of just 20 musicians managed to convey Verdi’s firepower and grandiosity with a fierce intensity that literally made the air vibrate in the tiny space of the East 13th Street Theater. Counterintuitively, the intimate setting amplified the Verdian experience, making it more visceral and essential. Many times throughout the performance I felt the shivers run up my spine from the sheer haunting power of the score, a feeling that I did not experience when seeing Macbeth in a big house like the Met.

Ambizioso spirto, tu sei Macbetto
Photo credit: Brian Long
I was all tingles when soprano Mary Ann Stewart as Lady Macbeth took the stage for her first big aria (Ambizioso spirto, tu sei Macbetto) and came out larger than life. Initially she may have come out a bit too big, especially as she hit the notes in the higher range with a near brutal violence considering the intimacy of the black box space of the Classic Stage Company theater on East 13th Street, but this could also just be interpreted as part of her character – an almost vampiric femme fatale with an unwieldy will to power. Her initial vocal fireworks were so powerful that I can understand why Macbeth might be accustomed to feeling his hair stand up on end, as he sings elsewhere though about his encounter with the witches (Sento rizzarmi i capelli). I know that the hair on the back of my neck bristled as she burst into megalomaniacal song over the cryptic promise of a regal future for her husband. A promise that she very much intends to make good on.

Lady Macbeth on the verge of a nervous breakdown
Photo credit: Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble
Stewart’s Lady Macbeth only improved over time. I feel like by the end she inhabited her voice with more and more control, and continued to tailor it to the context of the space better and better by the time she got to her famous sleepwalking aria in Act IV. She was as haunting as ever. Startling to see such a powerful woman fall from such heights and sink so low. As Verdi wrote some of the most dynamic music not for the eponymous male lead but for Lady Macbeth, this is really her opera. Stewart brought this paradoxically tragic figure to life.

King for a little bit
Photo credit: Brian Long
Baritone Jason Plourde as Macbeth had good stage presence and inhabited this challenging character convincingly. Some of his vowels in the Italian dropped out a bit but all in all his was a solid performance, growing particularly strong in Act III when the prophecies start to tragically come true. In the final act Plourde’s singing was raging and his acting intense, powerfully conveying Macbeth’s downward spiral journey.

Who's pushing whom?
Photo credit: Brian Long
I found it interesting that Verdi’s Macbeth needs so little coaxing from his overbearing wife in order to commit the initial crime. The opera streamlines most of their early sexually charged quibbling over whether or not to act on the prophecies of the weird sisters. Musically her character far and away outshines her husband in terms of character and willfulness, complexity and depth, however, in terms of the narrative Macbeth acts more of his own mind especially in committing the first crime, which is slightly at odds with the most common portrayal of the Shakespearean source material, not to mention the fact that it clashes with a weak or indecisive representation of Macbeth in his first series of encounters with the witches in the aftermath of battle. Macbeth in Verdi demands to be played as even more of a bear and a beast and a brute from the get go. Even if the thought to overthrow the king only dawns on him by the power of suggestion, first and foremost by the witches but later also by his wife, by that time, in Verdi’s version he seems to have already made up his mind to go through with it. And even then, the vision of the dagger with its handle pointed toward him seems to be far more the sign on which he acts, not the prodding of his alpha femme wife.

Banco, must thou die so soon?
Photo credit: Brian Long
Why does our favorite singer always have to die so soon? After dying early as Seneca in last year’s Poppea, bass Hans Tashjian prematurely left us again as Banco (Banquo) in this year’s Macbeth. Aside from Lady Macbeth’s magnetic yet frightening stage presence, Tashjian was on another level with respect to the rest of the cast. His enunciation was excellent and his bass instrument was low and bold and resounding. This singer is growing more confident and expressive every time we see him, really an artist to keep an eye on and always a pleasure to see. Now can we please give him more extensive roles? Where are all the bass leads?

The perfectly weird sisters
Photo credit: Brian Long
Monica Niemi (soprano), Jackie Hayes (alto) and Elizabeth Bouk (mezzo) were the perfect witches, their choreographies precise and their singing piercingly scary (as it should be). Musically their part needs to be played (and sung) with an almost breathless sense of urgency and in conductor Christopher Fecteau’s hands it was executed just so. Director Myra Cordell used the chorus of witches to very good effect as they just kept appearing (even when the score does not expressly call for them), emphasizing the haunting role of fate and superstition that runs throughout the opera. They served to deliver the dagger in Macbeth’s vision as well as to conjure the corpse of the dead Banquo to rise to his feet in the haunting Act II banquet scene. Written as a chorus of forty in the original Verdi score, their reduction to three lacked none of their signature bewitching sense of urgency. Not only were they hypnotic and scary but as three they were also more faithful to the original Shakespeare.

The ensemble/comprimari (Isaac Assor, Andy Berry, Jonathan Dauermann, Nathalie Dixon, Milica Nikcevic, Milan Rakic) did an amazing job in the chorus sections. It was surprising to see how only six singers could effectively convey the firepower of a Verdian chorus. When in their solo parts, I was particularly impressed by Andy Berry and Milica Nikcevic. Bass Berry’s Italian was excellent and his instrument soothingly powerful. Mezzo Nikevic had a clear piercing musicality, especially in her prophecy bit, that left me wanting to hear more from her.

Macbeth and his men
Photo credit: Brian Long
Last but not least, a special mention for very young actor Gabriel Griezelj as Banco’s son Fleanzio. He had great stage presence for his innocent role and added the perfect dramatic touch when deftly running away from Macbeth’s men sent to kill him and his father. Griezelj was so good that he'll be debuting at the Met in this same role in October!

Young Gabriel Griezelj in action as Fleanzio
It was another triumph of intimate opera. For what was billed as a semi-staged production, the Dell’Arte Opera cast and crew delivered an awfully captivating performance. The costumes by Nina Bova were simple but suggestive. Every scene was acted out vividly. While there were few props or sets of any kind, the spectacle still whisked us away. A great conclusion to NYC’s summer opera season.

- Lui & Lei

An explosively intimate Verdi
Photo credit: Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble

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