REVIEW: ‘Macbeth’ dazzles audiences, slays apprehensions

Guest review by: Arthur Kaptainis

My mistake. I initially assumed that the Chautauqua Opera production of Macbeth would be in Norton Hall, a natural setting for this midsize masterpiece of Verdi’s early maturity. Only on my arrival did I realize that it was booked as a one-off in the Amphitheater. Could Macbeth really fill the space à la Aida?

Once again, my mistake. I did not understand, as do more experienced Chautauquans, how well this beloved facility projects sound — let alone fury. The performance Saturday night was a great success that made the score seem more universal — dare I say, Shakespearean — by opening it to the multitudes.

Director Jay Lesenger adopted an elemental approach, which is the right one for this gloomy piece. Rudimentary tones of black, grey, ochre and red create an atmosphere of foreboding. A few properties will do. The crown and the throne, after all, are potent symbols, and however customary medieval costuming might seem — even the relatively conservative Metropolitan Opera now dresses the principals in uptown formal attire and makes bag ladies of the witches — it universalizes the action in a way no high-concept alternative can match.

A central platform with two staircases (held over from the 2014 production of the Go West! inter-arts collaboration) proved quite sufficient to frame the action. There was a screen of modest size. Projections were used to generate mood — with clouds, sepulchers, heraldic shields, and sheets of blood with horror-show handprints — rather than for explicit narrative purpose. Who needs aids to comprehension when the drama is so blazingly clear? Add some stage smoke and presto: Macbeth.

Well, hardly. These are major roles, vocally and in terms of tragic amplitude. Michael Chioldi was a multifaceted Macbeth. There was colour and nuance in his big, sturdy baritone, and his acting left nothing to be desired. Even Verdi vacillated in his two versions of the opera between lamenting the tragedy of a reluctant tyrant and celebrating his triumphant overthrow. On this occasion, we could applaud the latter while thinking deeply about the former.

Lady Macbeth is another famously divided figure, although less troubled (in both Verdi and Shakespeare) than her husband. Jill Gardner, in her Chautauqua debut, gave a strong performance without much exploring the coarse tone the composer said he wanted. Still, her acting was generous and her entry from the rear of the auditorium during her sleepwalking scene — holding a lamp — was an apt means of heightening what little pity we can feel for this ruthless figure (again, in Verdi and Shakespeare alike). I have made no thorough study of the matter, but my guess is that the position singers find least amenable to the production of high notes is lying prone on the stage. Directors take note.

Bass-baritone David Crawford made a forceful — if relatively uninflected — case for Banquo. Even in the opening pages, this nobleman doubts the value of the witches’ prophecy. Crawford’s fellow former Chautauqua Opera Young Artist Jason Wickson brought the house down as Macduff, a figure who simultaneously laments the collapse of his nation into tyranny and the unspeakable tragedy of personal loss of his wife and children. Big, tough yet lyrical at the core, this young tenor is sure to go far.

Tenor Brett Sprague was a Malcolm you could believe in and the supporting characters (also Chautauqua Opera Young Artists) sang well. Choruses were up to company standards although it was apparent during the witches’ sequences that calisthenics and focused tone exist (as they do for choruses everywhere) in inverse proportion. That said, the weird sisters (whom Verdi brilliantly expands to a three-part plenary) were effectively Halloweenish, and the procession of future kings made their proper effect. Another inevitable theatrical highlight was the banquet scene, where the ghost of Banquo quite spoils the party.

To be truthful, I find the supernatural elements of Macbeth — as central as they were to the initial success of the opera in 1847 — of less interest than the human core. The tug of ambition and rectitude in the mind of the title character is of a type that besets humans everywhere and always will. Lesenger managed the narrative particulars (including battle scenes) without losing sight of this central reality.

Even more masterful was Hal France in charge of the superb Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. This is a score of alternating ferocity and tenderness and much feeling that is in between. Balances were apt and the pace never flagged. My private theory is that players who are not sequestered in a pit feel more motivated. In the Amphitheater, the orchestra is as much a public element of performance as the chorus. Thus we get the exactitude and discipline of a concert reading and the immediacy of a staging.

We also get our words in English, a great Chautauqua institution about which I need not elaborate (as rare as the phenomenon has become outside the Institution grounds). The translation was by the late Andrew Porter, and a fine one it was, preserving “Is this a dagger I see before me?” even though the Italian of Verdi’s librettist divides that thought in two. It was interesting to hear choral pleas to the Almighty in English that could have been recycled on Sunday morning to good effect.

Porter saw fit to restore Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me here” command, a Shakespearian (and, in the contemporary intellectual environment, potentially controversial) conceit that apparently proved too difficult to render into Italian. There were other details worth pondering. The central point was the unfolding of a powerful tragedy with universal relevance. That part everyone got exactly right.

Arthur Kaptainis is the classical music critic for the Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He also writes for Opera Canada and Musical Toronto, and is heard from time to time on CBC Radio Two.