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Opera being what we do in Seattle waiting for the next ballet program (:)) I saw Seattle Opera's production of Macbeth this past weekend. On Friday (Silver Cast), after an unusually long commute due to horrendous traffic, as I rushed to the door to my section, I heard a man's voice from outside the auditorium making an announcement, but I couldn't hear what he said. When Macbeth made first his entrance with Banquo, I thought they had found Gordon Hawkins' (Gold Cast) long lost cousin, because he looked just like Gordon Hawkins. As Speight Jenkins explained during the post-performance Q&A's, the curse of Macbeth took its operatic form: two weeks before the premiere, the original Silver Cast baritone hurt his knee so badly that he needed surgery. Because getting a visa for a singer without a US passport was too difficult in such a short period of time, Jenkins had to find an American baritone to do the role. He found one, and dress rehearsal went well, but I think what Jenkins then said was that Hawkins had to take over partway through the first performance, and went on to sing all eight performances in a week and a half. Friday was the start of second weekend in a row in which Hawkins sang back-to-back MacBeths. (Luckily there were no Sunday matinees.)

The production was designed by Robert Israel (sets and costumes) and Christopher Akerlind (lighting). The set was a box, with white panels on three sides, about three scrims tall on the back wall, with door openings in the upstage left back, upstage right side, and about 2/3 downstage left. In the back of the stage, about 12-15 feet high there was an inset rectangle about 10-12 feet high, which formed a balcony. From about 6 rows from the back of the house, it looked like a huge granite tomb; until the lights went up high in the middle of the third act, the walls looked completely smooth. When the lights went up, it was clear that there were "bumps" caused by the fabric on the flats loosing a bit of tautness. (Up closer on Saturday, this was apparent from the beginning.) There were piles of rocks, one of which, placed downstage left outside the front curtain, hid lights 9according to Jenkins) that were used effectively throughout. These were moved around or removed, depending on the scene. In addition, there were two light sheer curtains, downstage and about 40-50% of the way upstage; the latter created a more intimate space. It also allowed the multiple scenes in the first act to flow with little interruption.

Besides that wonderful use of light through the doors, the lighting was a balletomane's dream: with a white background, the mixtures of violets and greens in one scene, blue-gray and apricot in the next resembled the dyed silks of Nureyev's Swan Lake production of the mid-80's.

Witches, witches, witches. Israel costumed the 30 for whom Verdi wrote choral music and the 12 supers who pushed the action forward, half in black and half in white in dresses of mixed lengths, as a cross between brides and widows. Some wore short red gloves, and I realized on Saturday night that some wore red shoes. (I wish I had seen this on Friday, because I would have worn mine on Saturday, in solidarity.) During the overture, director Bernard Uzan had a small group of them egging on Lady Macbeth into tearing off the head of her doll. The dramatic problem is that Verdi wrote cute, poppy music for them, and there was no way to make them particularly menacing without countering the music. It was as if Verdi had turned them into mother-in-law jokes. It also didn't help that in Andrea Gruber (Gold Cast), they had by contrast a Lady Macbeth who was channeling Sorella Englund's Madge. When in a scene where Lady Macbeth plots the death of the MacBeth's obstacles to the throne, one witch, in black, minced up to her on one side with a knife, handed it to her, went behind her to her other side, and took the knife back. Physically, the witch looked like a Mad Magazine cartoon in which a shadow sneaks up with a knife to stab someone.

Jenkins explained that Verdi wrote the opera in 1847, the period in which the opera was set (costume-wise), and revised it in 1865. In the 1865 version, he added a sophisticated aria for Lady MacBeth in Act II, in this production set in a bed, there being no aphrodisiac like power, and a duet for Macduff and a herald, leading to a rousing chorus in Act III. Politically, this may have roused the Italian Nationalists in the audience, but dramatically, this was weak, especially after a great scene by Macbeth, a deeply pessimistic chorus describing the destruction of the country during the MacBeth's reign, Macduff's lament about the murder of his wife and children while he was in hiding, and leading to the Sleepwalking scene. Verdi wrote that he wished he'd never hear Macbeth's final aria again, and it was omitted in this production, but I wish he had been as judicious about not adding in that silly vengeance duet and patriotic chorus. Uzan could do nothing about that but play along.

Another issue dramatically was the scene in which Banquo and his son are trying to escape MacBeth's assasins. In a pretty much empty set except for a relatively loq pile of rocks, and no real place to hide, that Banquo's son's escaped was about as believable as most of Sylvester Stallone's.

I realize from this description that it sounds like an unsuccessful production, but it wasn't – in most ways in which it was a triumph. Two of the most successful scenes in the opera were those that Jenkins said are often laughable: Macbeth's mad scene in the middle of the banquet and the appearance of Banquo and his descendents, and the three apparitions. The latter was only one way in which Uzan used the trap doors so creatively throughout the opera. Each apparition was raised in succession to the stage, and then receded into the trap, his/her prophecy voiced. The first two were dressed like characters from Oedipus Rex, with blackened eyes and sheet-white faces. The first was sung by Byron Ellis, and the second, by male soprano David Korn, who is a member of the Opera's Apprentice Program. Like the little altars the witches made earlier from a rock with blood streaks down the side and a skull on top, Korn’s white sheath was stained from the neck to bodice with vertical streaks of blood. The last apparition was sung by a boy soprano dressed like an angelic young king (or so it looked where I was sitting); the role was shared by Max Seifer on Friday and Graeme Aegerter on Saturday. The stylization as Greek tragic figures worked brilliantly.

In the banquet scene, first the ghost of the murdered Banquo, still in the dress in which he was killed, with the blood where his throat was slit, appeared, calmly stalked the guilty Macbeth, driving him to distraction. When Banquo’s descendents appeared one by one, it was like a procession of elderly Russian Orthodox priests, in flowing robes with tall gold crowns, crossing the stage slowly from all directions and finally joined by Banquo holding with the mirror reference in the text, encircling MacBeth. Those Rasputin-like figures were far more eerie than the witches.

The final battle scene Macduff and Macbeth began as a sword fight, one of the few I’ve seen staged where in the duration, they hurt each other gradually, but as Macduff got the upper hand, and Macbeth fell to the floor, Macduff took his vengeance: instead of letting Macbeth fall on his sword or killing him with his own, Macduff took a pistol from one of his surviving men, and shot Macbeth like a dog. In the very final scene of the opera, a group of witches tried to body-snatch the men who had fallen downstage in the earlier battle, while the chorus rejoiced in the fall of the Macbeths. Earlier, when Macduff's half dozen men stormed the stage and he ordered them to put down their shields covered by Birnam wood, they weren’t carrying anything; the line was a throw-away. But at the very end of the opera, the entire ensemble walked slowly but deliberately downstage, dispersing the witches, and in that moment, the force of Birnam Wood approaching made its mark.

The tour de force, though, was during the Sleepwalking scene. Lady Macbeth made her entrance in a flowing white nightgown, put down her candle, walked to the back wall, touched it with her blood-stained hands, and left streaks of blood on the wall. As the scene progressed – the doctor awaiting proof of what the lady-in-waiting maintained about Lady Macbeth’s mental state, the slow deterioration of Lady Macbeth -- slowly along the column of panels along the stage right back wall, long, darkish streaks started to appear. Then between the horizontal cracks, red blood seeped out and down the walls. Deeper into the scene, as Lady Macbeth descended deeper into madness, two more columns of panels in the middle of the stage began to show the long dark streaks, more blood running slowly down the wall, and patches of blood seeping through the middle of the wall, during which time, Lady Macbeth’s gown slowly became blood-soaked.

Then there was the singing. In the Silver Cast, I felt that as Lady Macbeth Elena Zelenskaya started weakly, and only found the role in the Sleepwalking Scene, which, if there's any place to be excellent, is the place. Andrea Gruber grabbed the role by its throat, so to speak, and blazed through it dramatically, with every shade of light and darkness. I don't really like Gruber's voice; it reminds me of Callas', Scotto's, and Milanov's at their harshest and most strident. But it didn't matter at all; she embodied the role which starts off like a banshee and becomes more nuanced and speech-like as it goes on, the polar opposite of the trajectory of Isuzu Yamada's performance as Lady Asaji Washizu in Kurosawa's Throne of Blood. Lady Macbeth’s banquet costume was a gem, made of a light green silk taffeta with undertones of red, and short red gloves.

Burak Bilgili's Banquo was sympathetic and strong, and he sang with a warm voice. Joseph Calleja grabbed everyone's attention with a big, clear, bell-toned tenor. First Mattthew Polenzani in Cosi fan Tutte and now Calleja. One of the first questions asked in the Q&A’s was "When is Calleja coming back? I'd go specifically to hear either of them sing.

It's impossible to talk about Gordon Hawkins' performance without speaking first of the conductor Nicola Luisotti. Jenkins said that there was no trick to his performances: he simply followed Verdi's tempi and markings. What he accomplished was Verdi like I've never heard it before. Listening to the opera, I thought that this was the first time that Verdi did something quite extraordinary that was rarely re-visited in his middle and later works: an almost speech-like, conversational-toned dramatic singing. And this in an early Verdi opera still influenced by bel canto. (Although, the most bel canto scene, the banquet scene, seemed to use the style ironically, as both the Macbeths and the chorus was putting on a false, public face, which their words [chorus] and intentions [Macbeths] belied.) Now, I'm not sure whether Verdi didn't use this again, or if it's in all of the later operas, but stomped over by conductors. This score foreshadowed the later work, particularly the Requiem in the use of the ensemble of soloists alternating with the chorus and then joining it. The chorus of desolation in Act III is more moving to me than any in the Requiem (one of my favorite pieces of music), but I had never heard it before. The tenor aria that followed was almost an intrusion in a sacred space. The words were sadly resonant at this time in American history.

By keeping the orchestra at a whisper where indicated, Hawkins, like Gruber, could "speak" the role where needed, and he sang with the full range of shade and color that an actor has, with the additional dimension of song. It was a complete transformation of someone who always has been a very fine singer. In ballet terms, it was as if overnight, a gifted young principal and rising star at the Bolshoi woke up with the gifts of Ulanova in her prime. This was a landmark performance for him.

One of the things that makes opera special that becomes less and less prevalent in ballet was evident during the curtain calls. Archie Drake, the 80-something year old baritone who sang the doctor, was standing stage left during the curtain calls. To his left was the elementary [ETA: middle-]school aged boy soprano. To his right was the young star of the Apprentice Program, over 50 years his junior. All colleagues.

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Thank you for that wonderful review, helene. This production actually makes me want to see the opera again. Seattle so often, in my limited experience, rewards the eye as well as the ear.

I have a question regarding Gold and Silver casting. Our company, like many, offers a first and second cast without really stressing it. Tickets are much more expensive on opening night (a social thing), but not on the other first cast performance.

The use of "Gold" and "Silver" by Seattle really implies a quality judgment, doesn't it? Implying that somewhere down the line there might be a "Brass Cast" or even a "Dross Cast" waiting for its chance?

P.S. I loved this part of your account, which brings back many memories of opera performances almost everywhere:

One of the things that makes opera special that becomes less and less prevalent in ballet was evident during the curtain calls. Archie Drake, the 80-something year old baritone who sang the doctor, was standing stage left during the curtain calls. To his left was the elementary school aged boy soprano. To his right was the young star of the Apprentice Program, over 50 years his junior. All colleagues

You got me thinking about comparable curtain calls in ballet. Most Nutcrackers/ tThe young students on the bridge in Tarantella/ Midsummer's Night Dream (Balanchine version, also at Seattle)/ Frederick Franklin at ABT. Others?

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Yes, I appreciate this detailed review too--exemplary writing on an opera performance--and have as a result looked through this forum, which I hadn't seen. It made me look up the review of 'Parsifal' here a few weeks ago with Ben Heppner, which I didn't see, but it isn't the Robert Wilson production. I saw that in Los Angeles just before Christmas this year and thought it was one of the greatest moments in opera I'd seen. Domingo had a bad cold and was replaced by Gary Lehman, who had a wonderfully slender voice, greener vocally which was just right since it was also strong enough. Physically, he was much more the 'young fool', and this look of the stripling was wonderful visually, although nobody was going to be upset if Domingo sang. Vocally, Linda Watson was a magnificent Kundry, and the orchestra under Kent Nagano sounded fabulous that day. I don't know how to describe the stunning Robert Wilson production, but the Grail alone (when seen) was a glowing thing. There are long periods of standing still, but you can concentrate on the music in those. However, not nearly all the LA audience cared for this, and many left after the first act, so I got a fine seat. I was very impressed that LA had this production, as it matched anything I've ever seen in New York. Some of the younger people who got all the way through it were free with obscenities about how they'd hated it, and older ones complained of the length.

Well, I wondered if anyone else had seen it, it cast a truly powerful spell. I was reluctant to do almost anything afterwards, but life has to go on, and I had thoroughly descended within 4 days, in the audience of 'Irving Berlin's White Christmas' at the wonderful deco Pantages Theater. I never had seen some Christmas pageant, and this was just awful. At least the old movie has some good dancing and Rosemary Clooney. I hadn't known till the NYTimes review for May 13 that 'Parsifal' was for some years never allowed outside Bayreuth, which gave it a religious significance well beyond the material itself. Even a few months is too long to say more than this, as I can't find my program.

I haven't ever seen Macbeth, and am going to look for it here.

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The use of "Gold" and "Silver" by Seattle really implies a quality judgment, doesn't it? Implying that somewhere down the line there might be a "Brass Cast" or even a "Dross Cast" waiting for its chance?

LOL! Now that would be a Marketing coup!

Speight Jenkins, being Speight Jenkins, has educated his audience to know that if they go to the lower-priced Silver Cast performances (Friday night/Sunday matinees), they may very well be seeing the stars of the future. I've seen productions where when all was said and done, I thought the Silver and Gold were equal -- The End of the Affair, Rigoletto come to mind -- or where the Silver was better, in my opinion (Girl of the Golden West, for example). Macbeth didn't happen to be one of them. In some ways, my Silver Cast subscription was like my first, Saturday matinee subscription to NYCB, in which many soloists and corps members danced principal roles. You get to say, "I saw/heard them first."

papeetepatrick, it was nice to read your description of Gary Lehman. We were lucky to hear Linda Watson sing Kundry in Seattle, too in the production of Parsifal which opened the new, refurbished McCaw Hall.

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I wouldn't even know where to begin to respond to Helene's excellent and insightful review, but I will attempt to give a pale, in contrast, counterpoint.

This was my first Macbeth. Perhaps it was me that night, perhaps I need to see the piece a couple more times, but this night at the opera left me unsatisfied. I can only wish that I had Helene's eyes and ears to see and hear the details and nuances that she does, my brush will have to be far more broad.

First off, I was put off by the set. In the Q&A session I attended (after the Gold cast), one of the first comments was from a guy who made the strong statement that in something like 20 years of opera and hundreds of sets, this was the worst one he had ever seen. Clearly it was a disaster for him. It was just as clear liistening to follow up comments from others that for many the set was a brilliant stroke of design and dramatic power. Jenkins said that the set represented being inside the minds of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. With that explanation the sets suddenly made more sense to me, but during the performance I found them harsh and distracting. My reaction was not anywhere near as negative as this other guys, but I understood his, and I suspect some other patrons, reaction.

Next, unlike Helene I strongly disliked the lighting. I did find the strong color washes going from one strong color to another as emotions changed to be very effective, but the harsh white light shining in from the sides often thru small doors to be once again distracting and even a bit "gimmicky". I especially did not like the white lights high on the set shining into the audience's eyes (I sit in the orchestra, from higher up this might not have been a problem). I also felt that the use of sheer curtains was overdone.

Lastly, I truly disliked the witches. I found their bride like costumes, some the purity of white, others ominous black, to be too gimmicky. Witches ought to be witches in my mind, not brides: white or black. But really my problem with the witches was not their costumes so much as their movement. This brings me to my biggest and most strongly felt criticism: there was WAY too much movement on the stage -- it was just most evident with the witches. I felt this was huge mistake in direction. No only was the movement excessive (for no apparent reason in many cases) but so awkwardly done. Several times large groups of the chorus -- whether they be the witches or the "towns folk" -- dozens and dozens of them were forced to squeeze single-file thru narrow openings (thru a single door, or around the edges of a sheer curtain). I found myself completely taken out of the opera waiting for these huge mass movements to complete. The chorus members and supers looked like they felt awkward themselves having to line up and march like school children filing into a classroom. There were times when the witches swirled around one of the principal singers as a sort of malevolent force when I wanted to scream STOP IT. It felt to me that the director had simply made up his mind that movement on stage was to be continuous come hell or high water.

OK....enough, already :(. That was the spectacle part. Musically I loved it. The conductor Nicola Luisotti was magnificent. Given my dislike of the visuals I often simply closed my eyes and let the music, and his conduction (is that a word??), transport me away. Verdi's music is always dramatic, but under Luisotti's baton it was dramatic squared while still wonderfully lyrical. I don't have the ear to say much about the singing except to agree whole-heartedly with Helene that Andrea Gruber was superb in the Sleepwalking scene.

I will be very interested to discover what my reaction will be when I next see a production of Macbeth.

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Sandy, I agree with you completely about the witches. I just don't know how they could be portrayed as malevolent when their music undermines this. There are so many ways in which scary witches could have been done if the music supported it, but when the two ladies making fun of the Countess' attempt to land Prince Florimund in Sleeping Beauty are more bone-chilling than witches, "unsuccessful" is the most polite way I could describe it.

Jenkins said that he deliberately left out the ballet music; he once saw a production where there were witches on pointe, and the audience laughed. But I do think there's a lot of room between pointe and what we saw for people who can move convincingly during the regular scenes with the witches.

I can also see how the bright lights would have been disconcerting and jarring from the orchestra. The closest I got was the back row of the Gallery Upper, but the lighting looked magnificent to me from the Second Tier.

Thank you for your review!

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Sandy, I agree with you completely about the witches. I just don't know how they could be portrayed as malevolent when their music undermines this. There are so many ways in which scary witches could have been done if the music supported it, but when the two ladies making fun of the Countess' attempt to land Prince Florimund in Sleeping Beauty are more bone-chilling than witches, "unsuccessful" is the most polite way I could describe it.

What to do with the witches? I've seen three different productions of Macbeth and this was a failure point in all three. Helene, I agree with you in that I think the problem is inherent in the music. But what can you do?

Traditional approaches tend to look trivial and out of the norm ones end up looking silly, confusing , or stupid.

I'm not sure , but I don't think Verdi touched the witches' Act 1 music when he took the original 1847 version and modified it in 1865 for Paris. Too bad; he gave the opera La Luce Langue at that point which adds gravity, too bad he didn't do something with the witches in Act 1.


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