Glimmerglass Festival’s ‘Macbeth’ a vocal triumph fit for a king
Eric Owens roars and Melody Moore soars in the company’s first-ever production of the Verdi masterpiece
Shakespeare’s Macbeth may have murdered his way to the throne, but in the new Glimmerglass production of Verdi’s operatic adaptation of the tragedy Eric Owens appears to get there on the sheer power of his colossal bass-baritone.
Owens’s singing, along with the equally potent vocal heroics of Melody Moore’s dramatic soprano and a strong effort from the supporting cast, will likely define the company’s first-ever Macbeth as a riveting and unforgettable listening experience whose singing outshined everything else in the production.
Written in 1847, Macbeth was Verdi’s first foray into Shakespeare (there would be two more: Otello and Falstaff). The composer’s collaboration here with Italian librettist Francesco Piave, which began four years earlier with Ernani, would fully blossom the following decade with such hits as Rigoletto, La Traviata and Simon Boccanegra. Sadly, Macbeth has lurked in the shadows of Verdi’s more popular operas — at least until fairly recently. Perhaps that helps explain why Glimmerglass, now celebrating its 40th anniversary, is only just now getting around to it.
For those who would trivialize Macbeth as an early work by a great composer, it is well to remember that Verdi reworked the score in 1865, making substantial stylistic changes to the vocal and instrumental writing. (It is this revision that remains the preferred version, widely used today.) The layering of old and new presents a fascinating opportunity to hear early and later Verdi, side-by-side. Add to the mix some worthy choral numbers, led by the irresistible Patria Oppressa, and you have a listening experience that can stand tall in the company of Verdi’s most persuasive dramatic works.
Director Anne Bogart’s production team transposes the story from the 11th– to 20th-century (I would guess somewhere around 1940, judging from the period costumes by James Schuette and Beth Goldberg). Macbeth, Banquo and Macduff are now soldiers somewhere on the eve of World War II, while the Bard’s witches have been distilled into a downtrodden assortment of oppressed refugees, cleaning women and laborers.
The simple but efficient set (also by Schuette) is anchored by a moving panel of three doorways that swivels into different configurations, the most visually stimulating of which is an Enlightenment-era wall adorned with candelabras. (Might this have been swapped from a production of Figaro?) The handsome panel of doors, adorned with a chandelier, looked stunning in the second act Banquet Scene.
The imposing, oversized red roses that engulf the backdrop and come to life under Robert Wierzel’s ominous lighting provide a constant reminder that blood will be flowing. These giant roses, which look ready to devour its prey à la Little Shop of Horrors, provide a fitting backdrop for Lady Macbeth’s reading of her husband’s letter early on — her lust for power blossoming in-step with the reading of the witches’ prophesies that Macbeth will ascend the throne. This eerie imagery climaxes in Lady Macbeth’s Mad Scene in the final act, as the relentless red of the walls seem to mirror the imaginary blood she can’t seem to wash from her hands.
Though I felt the set grew somewhat tiresome by the third act, it was clear that the pervasive element of gloom and doom evoked by the bareness of the stage, along with the bland and colorless depression-era costumes, cast a veil of despair over the stage that faithfully served the drama. The darkly hued lighting served to underscore the ebullience of the singing that much more.
As the title character, Eric Owens — the festival’s 2015 Artist in Residence — all but stole the show with his powerful and deeply resonant bass-baritone. His instrument was in full gear at Saturday’s opening night performance.
Owens’s vocal timbre reveals the depth and pedal tones of a full-fledged bass, though his dependable top register, which convincingly navigated the high Gs in his third act signature aria Fuggi regal fantasima, reveals the elastic qualities of a baritone.
His voice showed no sign of tiring during the busier moments, such as when his character begins to unravel in front of the banquet guests — remorse, no doubt, over his ordering the murder of his friend, Banquo. Despite some few brief moments of strain in Act Three during his exhausting pair of arias O lieto augurio and Fuggi regal fantasima, a fearless Owens remained strong in voice throughout the production. Kudos to Bogart and Music Director Joseph Colaneri for restoring Macbeth’s Death Aria (Mal per me che m’affidai), which Verdi had put on the chopping block for the 1865 revision. It’s a dramatically moving number that provided the Glimmerglass audience with a final taste of Owen’s remarkable voice.
As an actor, Owens was less convincing. Though his voice displayed a variety of colors, his acting was largely monochromatic — the color of fear. His Macbeth came off not so much evil or confused; just plain scared. I had hoped to see a confused, uxorious husband torn between blind obedience to his manipulative wife (the true villain in this drama) and his own moral compass. Or at least a complex character growing increasingly disillusioned on his bitter journey to power. Owens projected little more than a frightened and superstitious man. But with a voice like that, who’s to complain?
A second vocal tour de force came from Melody Moore as Macbeth’s pernicious wife. Her powerful delivery and vocal ferocity left no doubt as to who wears the pants in the Macbeth household.
Verdi wastes little time unleashing Lady Macbeth’s vocal fury, which the composer envisioned should sound “hard, stifled and dark.” Moore may not have accommodated Verdi’s wishes to the letter, but it was clear that the soprano sprang out of the gate like a champion thoroughbred when she first appeared onstage. Hers is a voice that commands attention and takes center stage from the start — as many will remember from her stellar performance last season as Senta in the Glimmerglass production of The Flying Dutchman.
Like Owens, Moore is not content to play it safe during the coloraturas and high notes. She goes right for the jugular. Her high notes struck terror in Or tutti, sorgete, while the low register maintained the rich timbre of a mezzo. Moore demonstrated great subtlety, as well. In her Mad Scene in Act Four, surrounded by images of blood-red roses as she tries to wash the blood from her hands, Moore’s command of voice in the hushed dynamics of the Una macchia è qui tuttora! was thrilling. There’s a silky, delicate quality to her soprano at these dynamic levels, and she weaves in and out of head voice seamlessly.
As an actress, Moore tended to be a bit reserved at times. Mostly, however, she appears coldly calculating. When she screams, “I must have the throne!” there’s little doubt she will use any means necessary to make it happen. In one of Bogart’s most effective staging effects, Moore scolds Macbeth, who had just killed Duncan, for appearing remorseful. “You are nothing but a boy,” she tells him while holding the bloodied knife threateningly over Macbeth’s groin. I, for one, had to reposition myself in my seat.
Pitted against Owens’s formidable bass-baritone, you might think Soloman Howard, as Banquo, would have shriveled in the face of the competition. To the contrary, Howard’s magnificent bass matched Owens stride in the opening scene during their duet, where the soldiers ponder the witches’ prophesies. Soloman’s deep and colorful bass was especially alluring in his second act aria Come del ciel precipita, where he senses his impending assassination. Although his credits do not include the role of the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, I imagine this would suit him rather well.
Macduff has only one aria, and you have to wait until the final act to hear it. But Michael Brandenburg — a product of the 2015 Glimmerglass Young Artists program — made the wait worthwhile.
Initially dwarfed in the first act by the hefty basses of Owens and Howard, the young tenor came into his own with a deeply expressive Ah, paterna mano, which he sung with secure top tones and good projection. In a production where the acting was dwarfed by the singing, Brandenburg stood out in this aria for his convincing pathos, as he mourns the loss of his wife and children.
The role of the chorus in Macbeth is fairly substantial, including a women’s chorus that represents Shakespeare’s original three witches. The mixed chorus of Scottish exiles, well prepared under the direction of Chorus Master David Moody, sounded full and sonorous in the Patria and again at the end of the opera following the death of Macbeth, rejoicing at the return of their rightful monarch.
The Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra, under the capable direction of Colaneri, sounded ready-to-go at this, the first performance of the production run. The brass section was especially solid, with blazing trumpets in the contrapuntal battle scene at Birnam Wood.
“I die, despised by heaven and earth,” cried Owens as his character lay dying at the end of the opera. The appreciative opening night audience, which took to its feet hollering and screaming during the lengthy curtain call, suggests otherwise.
What: Verdi’s Macbeth, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
Who: Glimmerglass Festival
Where: 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, N.Y.
Performance reviewed: July 11, 2015
Time: About two hours and 45-minutes, with one intermission
Language: Sung in Italian, with projected English titles
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $26 to $144 (discounts for students, educators and seniors)
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. July 17, 31 and Aug. 13; 8 p.m. Aug. 8, and 22; 1:30 p.m. July 21, 26, Aug. 15 and 17