Clarity is perhaps the most important concept to Chautauqua Opera Company General and Artistic Director Jay Lesenger while he is leading a production, and Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth is no exception.
“My work has always been about telling the story as clearly as possible,” Lesenger said. “I am very old school in that way, and this production is certainly a traditional one.”
The tradition will carry on at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater as Macbeth makes its return to Chautauqua Institution.
Verdi composed Macbeth set to an Italian libretto, based on the storyline in the classic William Shakespeare play. For the Chautauqua production, the Andrew Porter English translation will be used.
Macbeth is set in medieval Scotland under the rule of King Duncan. Macbeth, a general in Duncan’s army, returns from a successful battle and is met by three witches with three prophecies: “Thane of Glamis,” “Thane of Cawdor” and “King hereafter.” After receiving the prophecy that he will become king, Macbeth and his wife begin devising a plot to seize the throne — first by killing Duncan.
What follows are events that lead, ultimately, to turmoil and insanity for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as they embark on a journey of greed and power.
“Macbeth has a few moments of sympathy,” Lesenger said. “He has hesitation and can be more dimensional. Lady Macbeth is fascinating because of her selfishness, greed and desire for power, and that is not easy to portray.”
Michael Chioldi (Macbeth) and Jill Gardner (Lady Macbeth) are seasoned singers with extensive experience in performing opera leads.
“It is not easy for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth,” Lesenger said. “They are both on stage a lot, and the music is tough to sing but exciting. Both characters are going to have to go far out since they are not sympathetic characters.”
In preparation for these complicated roles, Chioldi and Gardner have researched and studied the play, music and language to deliver an unforgettable performance.
“When I first played Macbeth, it was a daunting task,” Chioldi said. “Vocally speaking, it’s very difficult, and the role demands many different colors and dynamics. I am a dramatic baritone, and I was working the dramatic intensity of Macbeth.”
Chioldi is reprising the role of Macbeth for the fourth time — he has previously graced the stage as the eponymous tragic character in Oman, Italy and Florida. In addition to international experience, he has 10 years of history with Chautauqua; this is his 10th role with the Chautauqua Opera.
“It’s nice coming here for me because I get to see my family,” he said. “They live about two hours south in Pittsburgh, and they come up and see me perform.”
In preparation for her lead role, Gardner approached the task in two ways: as an actor and as a singer.
“For every role I sing, I have a personal process that I go through,” she said. That is the part that never changes. As an actress, I work on how the character is going to walk, their posture and facial expressions.”
As a songstress, Gardner said, she focuses on the music vocally to learn not only how to sing it well, but also how to convey the character’s many layers of emotion.
Gardner learns her text along with everyone else’s to craft how she is going to deliver the lines through music.
“This is my debut with Chautauqua Opera, as well as my role debut with Lady Macbeth, so this is very special to me,” she said.
Along with the guest artists, two former Young Artists David Crawford (Banquo) and Jason Wickson (Macduff) have returned as professionals to sing lead roles for the production. Smaller roles in the production and the chorus will be filled by this year’s Young Artists.
As director, Lesenger has faced a few challenges with the production, but he is doing all he can to support the singers.
“I want to make sure that the singers have the support they need dramatically and musically to really fulfill the roles,” Lesenger said.
This is probably the most technically complicated show the company has done in the Amphitheater, Lesenger said. There are many scenes in Macbeth, and it requires constantly moving furniture and many costume changes. Video production is also being used to add visual effects.
“We only had three rehearsals with the orchestra before the performance,” Lesenger said. “We are on a tight schedule, but we are OK.”
Aside from the challenges, Lesenger is expecting an exciting production and encourages Chautauquans to come with their families.
“I have done it [Macbeth] at least three or four times before this,” he said. “It’s a great opera for children with a lot of energy, movement and excitement.”
After more than two decades, guest conductor Hal France will also return to Chautauqua to lead the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Although France said he’s conscious that the opera takes place onstage, the music coming from the floor of the Amp is just as important.
“Orchestra is such a huge part of what makes opera great, so you really want to make sure the orchestra generates the drama,” France said.
Developing the operatic mood can be difficult — especially when there are as few as two or three rehearsals to string the whole production together — but France said working with Lesenger, who is in his last season with Chautauqua Opera, makes the process a breeze.
“I watch him work, and he watches me work, and we sort of get a feel for it,” France said. “I would say that [Lesenger’s interpretation] is very dramatic — certainly looking at the dark side of this piece.”
But for anyone going into the performance expecting Shakespeare, France said, be prepared for disappointment. The libretto contains a few of the Bard’s famous lines, but the text is very much written for an Italian opera.
“You cannot compare them, and anyone who wants to say the opera is better than the play — they’re crazy,” France said. “They’re not to be compared.”
Staff writer Morgan Kinney contributed to this story.