Monday, December 12, 2016

All Hail, This Macbeth

Verdi’s Macbeth
MAST Chocolate Factory, Brooklyn Navy Yards
December 10, 2016

All hail, LoftOpera's Macbeth
Photo credit: Robert Altman
The LoftOpera experience is always an extreme one, in abandoned industrial spaces that are steaming hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. But that is also one of the elements that makes this company so radically bold and unassumingly cutting edge. There is something subversive and secret-society-like about walking your way through deserted urban wastelands to look for an “OPERA” sign, of all things. Once you finally get into the venue, the contrast between the rawness of the surroundings and the superb artistic quality and sophistication of the performance is a thing of sublime beauty – and this time more than ever as they tackle their most ambitious project to date.

That comforting secret society sign
Photo credit: Allegri con fuoco
The indie company had initially announced Kurt Weil’s Mahoganny as their December show, but thank goodness something made them change their minds and they switched to Verdi’s Macbeth instead. Weil is interesting but Verdi is just grand.

But how do you do grand opera in a factory on a budget and still deliver? We could describe the sets, costumes, clever use of the space, projections, staging ideas, which were all very nice, but what truly made this show memorable was the music, performed by a stellar cast and a tight orchestra, led by maestro and music director Sean Kelly. Every singer on stage was extraordinary, from the leads to the chorus. I don’t know how they managed to assemble such a top-notch group across the board. Even big houses like the Met usually cast a mixed bag of singers where if you’re lucky the good ones make you forget the mediocre or bad ones. In this case LoftOpera truly orchestrated a perfect musical storm.

Born to be Macbeth
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Baritone Craig Irvin embodied Macbeth body and soul and rendered him as a man completely and utterly possessed. With a clear, handsome sound and impeccable Italian diction he intoned the Scot’s musical lines with dark and commanding delivery that boomed through the cavernous space. Irvin is a powerful singer-actor and from the moment he opened his mouth he had me hooked and drew me into Macbeth’s downward spiral of power, ambition and self-destruction. From our seats in the second row, he was Macbeth in his eyes, the way he carried his brow, in his mouth framed by a very fitting beard, down to the core of his being. This is not an easy role and Irvin not only delivered it but he also made it his own in a raging, almost diabolical way. It seems like this run is a role debut for him, which makes it even more impressive that he could embody it so brilliantly.

In director’s Laine Rettmer’s take, the tables are turned from the more common interpretation where it is Lady Macbeth who pushes her husband to evil deeds. This production introduces, during the overture, a backstory where the Macbeths lost their young son, which seems to suggest that grief and childlessness are some of the propelling forces here, and perhaps Lady M bears more of the burden than her husband. 

The sexual politics are reversed
Photo credit: Robert Altman
In fact, here it is Macbeth who pushes his wife to suicide during his Pietà, rispetto, amore. In this pathos invoking aria of realization and reflection on his guilt and the futility of his plans, he pushes a huge rock across the rear of the stage space, with his wife perched on top in the midst of her final breakdown. She commits suicide while he reflects on the vicissitudes of his fate. He came across as the more diabolical one, which was reinforced by other little directorial choices. Rather than focus on the indelible stains on his hands, this Macbeth wore Duncan’s blood stained stole as a royal accessory (instead of the traditional crown). As a symbol of his bloodguilt, the stole becomes a voluntary reminder that he could easily get rid of, yet he wears it with a certain hubristic pride. The deep dark pride of Irvin’s voice also vividly elevated this characteristic take on the story, not to mention his profound acting chops.

Lady Macbeth responds to the letter
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Soprano Elizabeth Baldwin as Lady Macbeth was vocally electrifying and delivered her several show-stopping scenes with gusto, power and agility. Her soprano has dark undertones and the wide range required for this role. In her opening Vieni t’affretta she truly gave it her all and held certain final notes for what seemed longer than usual, in an impressive virtuoso display. In the drinking song Si colmi il calice she was delightful and graciously balanced the joyful tune with the efforts to reign in her hallucinating husband. And her sleepwalking aria Una macchia è qui tuttora was cookoo and almost child-like. Generally, Baldwin’s acting came across as less aggressive than usual for this role, in line with the production’s take where she lost her child and her husband is the more evil of the couple.  

Bass Kevin Thompson as Banco was spectacular and possibly one of the most handsome and effortlessly powerful bass voices I have ever heard live. He reminds me of Rene Pape but with warmer and sexier undertones. Thompson’s instrument is smooth, deeply melodic and just hypnotically enthralling. And strong, oh so strong. I was sad to see him die so early in Act II as I just could not get enough of him. He was a commanding grounding force in the initial duet with Macbeth and delivered his last aria Come dal ciel precipita before getting assassinated with heart-wrenching and chilling effects. He also strikes a humble, caring presence when he dons the hat of father to his son in the culmination of Act II. This is a singer to watch out for.

The ensemble cast was killer
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Another terrific singer I wished had more to do was tenor Peter Scott Drackley as Macduff. While he had truly only one big aria, Ah, la paterna mano, he delivered it as though his life depended on it while he grieved over his family murdered by Macbeth. With perfect Italian, soaring expressivity and a clean sound, he created one of those moments where time stopped, and tears streamed down my face.

The chorus of witches unleashed
Photo credit: Robert Altman
The chorus was top notch, too, particularly in the Act I finale Schiudi inferno where it asks God to punish Duncan’s death. You could feel the emotions tingling in the soles of your feet, in your legs and running up your spine. It was spectacularly chilling, just as a true Macbeth should be. And in Act IV’s opening Patria oppressa, the chorus was magnificently moving in this patriotic bit Verdi snuck in (nothing to do with the Shakespearean original but hey it’s the Risorgimento in Italy).

Lady M tries again to wash her hands clean
Photo credit: Robert Altman
When it came to staging, the production made a great use of the MAST chocolate factory cathedral-like space. The sets per se amounted to little more than two rock-like structures strewn with moss, but the stairs that led to the upper level of the facility were equally used, as were the walls (for projections, mostly in the prophecy scene). Also, I particularly enjoyed how the group of witches emerged from the cavernous back of the “stage,” literally as ghostly figures emerging from darkness. A simple yet very impactful effect.

Yes, the venue lacked heating (I felt for Lady M when she poured a carafe of bloody water over herself in Act IV), but as we walked out into the industrial navy yard with the skyline glistening under the snow, we could only feel exhilaration. Because when Macbeth is done so well it’s just so damn good.

Lei & Lui
Is that a dagger I see before me?
Photo credit: Robert Altman

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