Friday, June 24, 2016

Review: A bloody good Macbeth at Opera Theatre of St. Louis

L-R: Robert Pomakov, Roland Wood, Julie Makerov
Photo: Ken Howard
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Verdi, like many nineteenth-century composers, was a huge fan of Shakespeare. Two of his most highly regarded operas-Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893)-were based on The Bard's plays. He even planned a musical treatment of King Lear, but it never came to fruition.

This season, Opera Theatre is presenting Verdi's first Shakespeare opera, Macbeth, in the revised version the composer prepared for Paris in 1865. It's not generally regarded as being in the same league with the other two (although according to Operabase it's just as popular worldwide), but in the skilled hands of director Lee Blakeley and conductor (and OTSL Music Director) Stephen Lord it makes for a rattling good melodrama and an irresistible evening of musical theatre.

The libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei follows the bare bones of Shakespeare's original, although the story has been considerably streamlined and many secondary characters have been eliminated. The big moments are still there, though: the scenes with the witches, Lady Macbeth's "letter" and sleepwalking scenes, Macbeth's "dagger" monologue and, of course, the banquet with Banquo's ghost. And in Verdi's hands, they form the basis for very powerful theatrical moments.

Roland Wood and witches
Photo: Ken Howard
OTSL has a great cast on hand, headed by British baritone Roland Wood in the very large and demanding title role. His powerful, clear voice and imposing stage presence were a perfect fit for the part. Canadian bass Robert Pomakov was just as impressive as Banquo, forcefully and easily projecting even the lowest notes.

Speaking of low notes, the role of Lady Macbeth, although officially a soprano part, often drops quite low as well-so much so that it has sometimes been played by a mezzo. Julie Makerov sings the role here and while she's a soprano, she sounded entirely at ease with the part's range, top to bottom, and handled the coloratura-style elements in the banquet scene easily. Like her co-stars, she's a compelling actress, as credible in the fierce "letter" scene as in the Act IV "sleepwalking" aria "La luce langue" ("The light fades")-one of the numbers Verdi added for Paris audiences.

The tenor role of Macduff is less important in the opera than in the play-he only gets one aria, and that one quickly turns into a duet with the opera's other tenor, Malcolm. Matthew Plenk did a brilliant job with it, though, provoking enthusiastic applause when we saw the show. Tenor Evan Leroy Johnson cuts a striking figure as Malcolm.

L-R: Matthew Plenk and Roland Wood
Photo: Ken Howard
Director Lee Blakeley's stark set, inspired by the bare-bones quality of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, makes scene changes quick and fluid, and his staging highlights the loneliness of the Macbeths, as their relentless and bloody struggle for power alienates everyone they haven't killed or exiled. He and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind have made it a mostly very dark set as well-sometimes too much so. Still, it's a nice visual analogue for an opera in which dark, low voices predominate, and it works nearly all of the time. 

The orchestra of St. Louis Symphony musicians performs flawlessly under Stephen Lord's baton, and Robert Ainsley's chorus sings with sometimes overwhelming power and exactitude. The women's chorus is especially impressive in the two scenes with Macbeth and the witches, where Verdi replaced Shakespeare's trio of crones with an entire cackling choir divided into three covens.

You have one more chance to catch OTSL's Macbeth on Sunday, June 26 2016, at 7 p.m. and-trust me on this-you don't want to miss it. I can't recall the last time it was performed here in St. Louis, so this could be your only chance to catch this violent and compelling work. As with all OTSL operas, it's sung in English with projected English text. For more information, visit the Opera Theatre web site.

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