09 November 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi — MACBETH (M. Rucker, O. Graham, S. Zaikuan, G. Sciarpelletti, J. Kaufman, N. Unser, R. Harrelson; Opera Carolina, 7 November 2019)

IN REVIEW: the cast of Opera Carolina's November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph © by Bob Grand Lubell & Opera Carolina]GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): MacbethMark Rucker (Macbeth), Othalie Graham (Lady Macbeth), Song Zaikuan (Banco), Gianluca Sciarpelletti (Macduff), Jonathan Kaufman (Malcolm), Nancy Unser (Una dama di Lady Macbeth), Robert Harrelson (Un domestico di Macbeth, Un sicario, Un medico), David Clark (Prima apparizione), Ashley West-David (Seconda apparizione), Margaret Tyler (Terza apparizione), Bryson Woodey (Fleance); Opera Carolina Chorus and Orchestra; James Meena, conductor [Ivan Stefanutti, Director and Designer; Atelier Nicolao, Costumes; Michael Baumgarten, Lighting Designer; Opera Carolina, Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; 7 November 2019]

It is not solely four centuries’ accumulation of thespians’ superstitions that haunts the pages of ‘the Scottish play,’ William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. Published for the first time in the 1623 folio of Shakespeare’s works and based upon the fanciful account of Scottish history contained in the 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Macbeth dramatizes events from the reign of Eleventh-Century King of Alba Mac Bethad mac Findlaích and his wife Gruoch ingen Boite, virtually all accounts of whose lives cannot be corroborated. What can be verified is that, despite its relative brevity in comparison with its Shakespearean brethren, Macbeth has long been problematic for theatrical troupes. Inexplicable staging mishaps, physical injuries, fires, and financial calamities are all part of Macbeth’s lore, but the play’s foremost danger to actors is perhaps a deceptive sense that performing one of the Western canon’s most iconic dramas guarantees success. Plentiful amongst Macbeth’s victims are acclaimed actors whose skills proved to be inferior to the play’s demands.

Apart from a spectator’s startling suicide during an interval in a 1988 performance at the Metropolitan Opera, mayhem is less prominent in the performance history of Giuseppe Verdi’s operatic setting of Macbeth than in that of the play that inspired it, but neither the opera’s creation nor its subsequent revision was without complications. After receiving a carte-blanche commission from Florence’s Teatro della Pergola, Verdi was reminded by the availability of eminent baritone Felice Varesi, who would later create the title rôle in Rigoletto and Giorgio Germont in La traviata, of poet Andrea Maffei’s suggestion of Macbeth as a suitable operatic subject. Maffei was already adapting Friedrich von Schiller’s play Die Räuber for Verdi as I masnadieri, the first performance of which was given in London four months after Macbeth premièred in Florence. The libretto of Macbeth, modeled on Carlo Rusconi’s 1838 Italian translation of the play, was ultimately written by Francesco Maria Piave, who authored texts for ten of Verdi’s operas. The composer fell ill in the summer of 1846, delaying his work on Macbeth, but the extended gestation engendered a score in which aspects of Verdi’s genius that were only glimpsed in his nine previous operas sprang into view.

IN REVIEW: the cast of Opera Carolina's November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph © by Bob Grand Lubell & Opera Carolina]Disordini in Scozia: the cast of Opera Carolina’s November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph © by Bob Grand Lubell & Opera Carolina]

Eighteen years after its première at Teatro della Pergola, Verdi extensively revised Macbeth for a Paris production, making significant modifications to the music for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and tailoring the piece to better suit the Parisian tastes influenced by Auber, Halévy, and Meyerbeer. Macbeth was not as successful in Paris in 1865 as it had been in Florence in 1847, but Verdi’s reworkings for the French production introduced new music that tightened the opera’s dramatic structure, bringing its narrative nearer to Shakespeare’s play. Though it was only after Maria Callas sang Lady Macbeth at Teatro alla Scala in December 1952 that the opera reclaimed a place in the international repertoire, a hybridization of components of the 1847 and 1865 versions of the enabled audiences to appreciate both the radical inventiveness of Macbeth’s earlier incarnation and the heightened psychological probity of Verdi’s maturity. Utilizing an edition that, aside from omitting the ballet music and including Macbeth’s ‘Mal per me’ in the final scene, largely adhered to the composite score published by Ricordi in the 1880s [a critical edition of Macbeth was not available until 2005, when David Lawton’s complete editions of the 1847 and 1865 versions were published], Opera Carolina recreated Macbeth’s Scotland in Charlotte with a decidedly modern approach to tradition.

In recent seasons, Opera Carolina productions have demonstrated how effectively projections can be used to minimize the costs of set construction and rentals without imperiling performances’ theatrical potential. The company’s 2011 and 2014 productions of Il trovatore and Nabucco affirmed the viability of scenic projections in Verdi repertoire, and Michael Baumgarten’s lighting designs combined with the projections, devised by Baumgarten and director Ivan Stefanutti, to create visual effects that evolved in tandem with the drama. Not all of the imagery was wholly successful: in particular, the gargantuan specters that appeared on the screen drew the viewer’s attention away from the apparitions who sang on the stage. Scotland’s stunning landscapes clearly inspired many of the tableaux, but, like their paranormal counterparts, depictions of tempest-tossed seas and an undulating forest sometimes overwhelmed the stage action. The opera’s penultimate and closing scenes transpired before an evocative solar eclipse that gave way to a blazing sun, limning Scotland’s delivery from Macbeth’s tyranny. Avoiding blatant anachronisms [there are sometimes objections to use of Scotland’s emblematic rampant lion in productions of Macbeth, but the Royal Banner is known to have been a symbol of the Kingdom of Alba as early as 1222 and may already have been familiar during the historical Macbeth’s life], the production provided a dazzlingly atmospheric backdrop for the opera’s engrossing drama.

Scenically, Stefanutti’s opulent costume designs, masterfully realized by Stefano Nicolao and Atelier Nicolao, were this production’s foremost triumph. Singers of all body types were flatteringly attired in garments that, though indubitably more cumbersome than street clothes, impeded neither movement nor singing. The earth tones donned by Macbeth and his courtiers contrasted tellingly with the gleaming white worn by Lady Macbeth, intimating that the queen was unmistakably a woman at odds with her subjects. Trailing beards and illuminated, antennae-like appendages gave the witches’ bizarre appearance a subtle hint of humor that was inappropriate to neither Shakespeare nor Verdi, Stefanutti’s concept having much in common with the sketches of the inaugural 1847 Florence production of Macbeth now found in the Ricordi archives. So unobtrusive was Martha Ruskai’s typically thoughtful management of wigs and makeup that a pair of patrons were overheard at the interval discussing how artfully the principals’ natural hair was arranged. The absence of reliable primary sources inhibits scholars’ efforts to determine precisely how the denizens of Macbeth’s Scotland adorned and carried themselves, but Opera Carolina’s Macbeth proposed plausible solutions for the opera’s scenic enigmas.

IN REVIEW: baritone MARK RUCKER as Macbeth (left) and soprano OTHALIE GRAHAM as Lady Macbeth (right) in Opera Carolina's November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Il caudore e la sua regina: baritone Mark Rucker as Macbeth (left) and soprano Othalie Graham as Lady Macbeth (right) in Opera Carolina’s November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

The visual appeal of this Macbeth complemented an unfailingly musical and unapologetically Italianate reading of the score by Opera Carolina’s Artistic Director, James Meena. An accomplished interpreter of an extensive repertoire, Meena has often displayed exceptional affinity for conducting Verdi’s operas, and his pacing of Macbeth was febrile but never frantic. The statement in the Preludio of the theme later heard in Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene was phrased with cognizance of its bel canto origins, and tempi were chosen with care throughout the performance. Meena followed Verdi’s lead in progressing organically to rousing climaxes. The tension kindled by the sextet in Act One was palpable, as was the discharge of the accumulated electricity in the act’s finale. There were more mistakes in the Opera Carolina Orchestra’s playing of Macbeth than in previous Verdi performances by the company, the most noticeable of which was the unsettled resolution of the cor anglais’s final trill in the introduction to the sleepwalking scene, but the musicians’ concentration and preparedness yielded many passages of first-rate playing. Most importantly, Meena and the orchestra supported the singers with flexibility and finesse, fostering the creation of an environment in which the principals, certain that their endeavors were bolstered by the work of their colleagues in the pit, could immerse themselves in their rôles.

As has often been true of Opera Carolina productions, the singing of the company’s chorus in this Macbeth was a testament to the wealth of talent in the Charlotte metropolitan opera. As the coven of witches in the opening scene of Act One, the ladies of the chorus intoned ‘Che faceste? Dite su!’ eerily but without resorting to the silly, ‘witchy’ sounds sometimes deployed—often embarrassingly—in this music. Portraying Macbeth’s band of hired assassins in Act Two, the male choristers sang ‘Chi v’impose unirvi a noi?’ sinisterly. Called upon to continue their prophesying in Act Three, Opera Carolina’s ‘weird sisters’ chillingly imparted auguries of Scotland’s future and conjured spirit messengers with unexaggerated singing of ‘Ondine e silfidi, dall’ali candide.’ The sublime andante sostenuto chorus that launches Act Four, ‘Patria oppressa,’ equals the patriotic fervor and pathos of the famous ‘Va, pensiero’ in Nabucco and is perhaps even finer musically. The affecting performance that the piece received from Opera Carolina’s chorus was an ideal foil for the exuberant proclamation of victory with which the opera ended. It was indeed a victorious evening for the choristers.

IN REVIEW: baritone MARK RUCKER as Macbeth (left) and soprano OTHALIE GRAHAM as Lady Macbeth (right) in Opera Carolina's November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Il trionfo di male: baritone Mark Rucker as Macbeth (left) and soprano Othalie Graham as Lady Macbeth (right) in Opera Carolina’s November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

Without exception, Opera Carolina’s cast upheld and enhanced the production’s high musical and dramatic values. The mute rôle of Banco’s young son Fleance was expertly acted by Bryson Woodey, whose beyond-his-years stagecraft shone in his execution of Dale Girard’s choreography of his desperate, violent flight after Banco’s offstage murder. The ominous tidings of the three apparitions who confront Macbeth in Act Three were unnervingly but attractively delivered by David Clark, Ashley West-Davis, and Margaret Tyler. In many performances of Macbeth, it is easy to overlook the fact that Verdi asks Lady Macbeth’s lady-in-waiting to double her mistress’s fearsome top notes in ensembles, but, despite serving a powerhouse Lady, soprano Nancy Unser was an uncommonly vivid, always audible ‘dama,’ the character’s alarm and bewilderment in the sleepwalking scene insightfully communicated. She was partnered in that scene by the firm-voiced doctor of bass-baritone Robert Harrelson, whose confidently-projected tones and intrepid stage presence were equally advantageous in his portrayals of Macbeth’s servant and the assassin who slayed Banco.

In the proverbial operatic Utopia that today’s productions rarely visit, the rôle of Malcolm, the rightful heir to Duncan’s throne, should be assigned to a singer whose performance of his character’s music leaves the impression that he might also have proved to be an effective, capably-sung Macduff. Twenty-First-Century audiences are likely to encounter barely-adequate Malcolms sung by character tenors, but, continuing the trend of the Metropolitan Opera’s current revival, in which Macduff is sung by the renowned tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, Opera Carolina had in Jonathan Kaufman a Malcolm who was anything but a conventional secondo uomo. Kaufman’s lustrous timbre gave Malcolm’s lines in the Act One sextet and finale welcome muscle, and his vocalism in the scene with Macduff in Act Four was fittingly heroic. Ascents above the stave were handled with assurance that echoed the character’s rightful authority. Regaining the power usurped by Macbeth, Kaufman was a Malcolm whose singing was worthy of the crown won by his valor.

IN REVIEW: tenor JONATHAN KAUFMAN as Malcolm (center) in Opera Carolina's November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph © by Bob Grand Lubell & Opera Carolina]L’erede legittimo: tenor Jonathan Kaufman as Malcolm (center) in Opera Carolina’s November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph © by Bob Grand Lubell & Opera Carolina]

Italian tenor Gianluca Sciarpelletti portrayed Macduff, the Thane of Fife, first as a flinty, fecund warrior and later as a man broken by Macbeth’s merciless slaughter of his family. Discovering the corpse of the slain Duncan in Act One, Macduff’s shock, horror, and grief resounded in Sciarpelletti’s singing in the sextet and finale, in which his navigation of the difficult tessitura of his music betrayed few signs of effort. Lamenting both the deaths of his children and his own feelings of helplessness and failure in his moving scene in Act Four, this Macduff declaimed the recitative ‘O figli, o figli miei!’ with wrenching emotion. The aria ‘Ah, la paterna mano’ is one of Verdi’s loveliest pieces for the tenor voice and the impetus for several famous singers who never sang Macduff on stage having recorded the rôle in studio. Sciarpelletti’s performance of the aria lacked bel canto eloquence, but his emphatic top A♭s and B♭♭ forcefully conveyed the despondent father’s anguish. In the battle scene, the tenor’s impassioned voicing of ‘Via le fronde, e mano all’armi!’ propelled Macduff’s quest for vengeance to its inexorable conclusion. Sciarpelletti’s singing was often reminiscent of that of Carlo Cossutta, who retained Macduff in his repertoire for four decades.

Historians conjecture that the character Banquo, Macbeth’s lieutenant and fellow recipient of fateful prognostications from the witches, is either a conflation of historical figures or an invention of Holinshed’s Chronicles who was reimagined by Shakespeare as a moral counterbalance for Macbeth. In duration, the music for Verdi’s Banco is not substantial, but the rôle is musically and dramatically substantive, a distinction that was accentuated by Chinese bass Song Zaikuan’s thunderous singing in Opera Carolina’s Macbeth. In the Act One duet with Macbeth that follows the witches’ declaration that his own sons will succeed Macbeth on Scotland’s throne, Song articulated Banco’s words with acuity, enabling the listener to differentiate Banco’s and Macbeth’s sentiments with unusual clarity. Like Kaufman and Sciarpelletti, Song ensured that his character’s lines in the sextet and Act One finale were not obscured. The bass sang his aria in Act Two, ‘Come dal ciel precipita,’ with evenly-produced, superbly-projected, and truly beautiful tone. In Shakespeare’s time, it was erroneously believed that the Scottish king James VI, who ascended to the English throne upon the death of Elizabeth I as James I, was descended from Banquo. History notwithstanding, Song’s innately noble Banco was a thoroughly convincing ancestor of kings.

IN REVIEW: tenor JONATHAN KAUFMAN as Malcolm (left), baritone MARK RUCKER as Macbeth (center), and tenor GIANLUCA SCIAPELLETTI as Macduff (right) in Opera Carolina's November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Vittoria dei giusti: tenor Jonathan Kaufman as Malcolm (left), baritone Mark Rucker as Macbeth (center), and tenor Gianluca Sciapelletti as Macduff (right) in Opera Carolina’s November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

Returning to Charlotte, where she has previously sung the demanding title rôles in Verdi’s Aida and Puccini’s Turandot, to portray Lady Macbeth, soprano Othalie Graham first assayed the part in the present production’s October 2019 première at Toledo Opera. This auspicious rôle début inducted her into the very exclusive sorority of singers who have sung Lady Macbeth, Aida, and Turandot. Arguably, the most renowned members of this illustrious society are Maria Callas, Birgit Nilsson, and Leonie Rysanek, but other gifted ladies including Amy Shuard, Pauline Tinsley, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Rita Hunter, Martina Arroyo, Marisa Galvany, and Ghena Dimitrova contributed to the legacy that Graham continued. The vehemence of Graham’s calculating Lady recalled Callas’s standard-setting interpretation, and the incredible might of her singing rivaled Jones’s legendary vocal amplitude. Graham relied upon her own theatrical instincts and vocal resources in forming her characterization, however, thereby restoring to the rôle the Shakespearean grandeur that has been missing from too many recent performances of Macbeth.

IN REVIEW: soprano OTHALIE GRAHAM as Lady Macbeth in Opera Carolina's November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph © by Opera Carolina & Toledo Opera]Bella regina: soprano Othalie Graham as Lady Macbeth in Opera Carolina’s November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph © by Opera Carolina & Toledo Opera]

Lady Macbeth makes her initial entrance in Act One whilst reading a momentous letter from her husband, a spoken introduction that a number of Ladies have uttered with overwrought enunciation—and, in some cases, wretched Italian. In Graham’s performance, Lady seemed to actually be pondering a private communiqué rather than broadcasting a proclamation to the masses and did so with commendable diction. When she launched the recitative ‘Ambizioso spirto tu sei, Macbetto,’ the soprano began a journey that led the proud Lady from domestic discontent to treachery and destruction. The recitative’s top C was unruly, but the singer’s vocal control prevailed. The trills and bravura passages in the andantino cavatina ‘Vieni! t’affretta!’ and cabaletta ‘Or tutti sorgete’ are rarely comfortable for voices of the size of Graham’s, the former often ignored altogether by dramatic sopranos, but here, too, Graham’s dedication to fidelity to the score conquered the music’s difficulties. Her vocalism in the duet with Macbeth seethed with deadly cunning, her singing of ‘Regna il sonno su tutti’ at once cajoling and contemptuous. Feigning surprise, she credibly played the part of the unsuspecting beneficiary of misfortunate in the sextet and finale, though perceptive onlookers might have recognized her fortissimo top C♭ as an exultant celebration of the success of her scheming. Graham ended Act One with a magnificent D♭6 that might have leveled Birnam Wood.

In Lady Macbeth’s scene at the start of Act Two, Graham traversed the two-octave range of the allegro moderato aria ‘La luce langue’ with abandon, unafraid of roaring as the leonine aspects of Lady Macbeth’s character pounced into action. The false jollity of the Brindisi, ‘Si coimi il calice di vino eletto,’ drew from Graham singing in which Lady’s unrelenting resolve was audible, and, as in her aria and cabaletta in Act One, no trill was neglected. The Act Three duet with Macbeth found Graham at the height of her powers as a singing actress, her depiction of Lady’s ferocity exemplified by her Herculean top C. Not surprisingly, there was no shortage of vocal strength in Graham’s traversal of the sleepwalking scene in Act Four, but the expressivity of her singing was no less prodigious. The scene’s kinship with Bellini’s and Donizetti’s mad scenes was apparent, but the disintegration of this Lady’s faculties was evinced not by manic actions but by an engrossing singularity of purpose devoted to ridding her hands of the ‘damnèd spot’ that only she could see. That such a large voice reached the written top D♭ quietly, as Verdi intended, was astonishing, but the ethereal beauty of Graham’s tone was captivating. Though undeniably unscrupulous and motivated by an unquenchable lust for power, Graham’s Lady Macbeth was no one-dimensional termagant: beyond the venom and vitriol, a vulnerable woman fighting to find lasting security in a hostile world could be discerned.

IN REVIEW: baritone MARK RUCKER as Macbeth (left) and soprano OTHALIE GRAHAM as Lady Macbeth (right) in Opera Carolina's November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph © by Opera Carolina & Toledo Opera]Teste incoronate: baritone Mark Rucker as Macbeth (left) and soprano Othalie Graham as Lady Macbeth (right) in Opera Carolina’s November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph © by Opera Carolina & Toledo Opera]

In an acclaimed career that includes memorable performances of Rigoletto, Amonasro in Aida, and Don Carlo in La forza del destino at the Metropolitan Opera, Mark Rucker has garnered a position of honor among the preeminent Verdi baritones of his generation. With his performance in the title rôle in Opera Carolina’s Macbeth, he was a peer of Tito Gobbi and Giuseppe Taddei as an interpreter of Verdi’s music for the Thane of Cawdor. In his first scene, this Macbeth was noticeably amazed by the witches’ foretelling of his regal destiny, and the elation of his anticipated elevation in rank was tinged by uncertainty in his duet with Banco. It was a man who needed only a mild prodding to definitive action who sang ‘A me precorri’ in the duet with Lady Macbeth. Nevertheless, Rucker touchingly divulged the doubt and guilt that plagued Macbeth after Duncan’s assassination.

Some Macbeths make little of the brief scene with Lady Macbeth that opens Act Two, but Rucker deepened his psychological portrait of the tormented thane by singing with attention to Macbeth’s words and how they interact with those of his consort. There are many parallels between Macbeth’s agonized responses to the materialization of Banco’s spirit in the banquet scene and the ravings of the eponymous monarch in the latter half of Nabucco. Rucker voiced ‘Prenda ciascun l’orrevole’ with burgeoning dread, and he projected ‘Tu di sangue hai brutto il volto’ with terrifying vocal steel. His ‘Va! Spirto d’abisso’ was a command that not even the most audacious phantom could disobey. The baritone’s stalwart but unquestionably sincere voicing of ‘Oh! lieto augurio!’ in the gran scena delle apparizioni in Act Three effectuated an element of frailty in his portrayal. In the duet with Lady Macbeth, Rucker further refined his characterization, revealing the passivity at the core of Macbeth’s constitution that feeds his wife’s appetite for dominance.

Sensing the increasing feebleness of his grasp on the crown in Act Four, Macbeth contemplates his mortality in one of Verdi’s great baritone arias, ‘Pietà, rispetto, amore,’ sung by Rucker in this performance with the secure tone, aristocratic phrasing, and expressive elegance that are the hallmarks of important Verdi singing. Rightly rewarded with an enthusiastic ovation, this account of the aria bared Macbeth’s tortured heart to the audience. Including the final choral paean to Macbeth’s defeat and death after Rucker’s profoundly plaintive voicing of ‘Mal per me’ seemed cruel, Macbeth having earned pity with an acceptance of death that he had come to regard as retribution for his crimes. Every note of the rôle in the voice and a myriad of the complicated man’s emotions present in his introspective character study, Rucker offered the Charlotte audience a Macbeth of a caliber widely believed to no longer exist in opera. This is the essence of what Opera Carolina productions assert: opera endures in many of America’s great cities, but, with performances like this Macbeth, it thrives in Charlotte.