Macbeth: Opera Review

Macbeth Opera Still - P 2013

Macbeth Opera Still - P 2013

Diamond-intense concentration of Shakespeare drama, setting his powerful words to advanced late romantic music in this century-delayed U.S. professional company premiere.

Long Beach Opera brings Shakespeare's drama to San Pedro Harbor.

Though known primarily through his Jewish-themed works such as Schlemo, Ba’al Shem and Suite Hébraïque, and his great Concerti Grossi and the last four (of six) String Quartets, the Swiss-born American composer Ernest Bloch wrote this sole opera in his twenties. It premiered at the Paris Opéra-Comique in 1910, and thereafter he composed relatively few vocal pieces. A great loss, on the evidence of this aggressively modern, highly charged production by Long Beach Opera in an inspired location adjacent to the battleship USS Iowa in San Pedro Harbor.

Inevitably this Macbeth was fated to be overshadowed by Verdi’s, though is that not a risk undertaken by every composer of opera? This version doesn’t so much take the dramatic source into the realm of opera as much as bring operatic expression into the tragic catharsis of the Scottish play.

Certainly in this English-language edition -- utilizing almost exclusively the original text, necessarily condensed -- the opera securely shines as among the truest in spirit and potent substance to its source of any vocal settings of the Bard’s plays. While the music might be suffused with influences ranging from Mussorgsky to Debussy, it integrates their innovations securely in a distinctive language of its own. (If the ear’s memory does not deceive, a number of its motifs have been pilfered by film composers over the years, perhaps under the cover of its obscurity.)

As directed and designed by LBO artistic director Andreas Mitisek, this mounting emphasizes claustrophobia and spiritual isolation from which there is no escape (not even for the audience, confined to their seats for the 110-minute duration). The passenger terminal is filled with a mere eight rows of seats on each side of the almost impossibly narrow, elongated performance space (roughly 12 feet wide and more than 150 feet long).

While the sightlines can be haphazard, and the lighting perforce blunt, the intimacy of involvement in what might usually be grand opera is extraordinary. The low ceilings and sonically bright surfaces make for an uncommon acoustic experience of heroically pitched voices in tight contact. For once, the diction is so precise and the hall so felicitous that even the Elizabethan dialogue can be easily registered without the need for supertitles (which are nevertheless supplied).

The orchestra, sequestered at the far end of the hall in what is essentially another room, sounded far more alive than seemed possible, although individual instrumental voices are inescapably obscured.

What Mitisek and his cast are after, though, is the heart of the drama, the existential dread exemplified by this bloody, frightening modern couple. No concessions are made to vocalistic mannerism or indicative emoting over vivid, rich and deep acting.

The focus sharpens unyieldingly on the two leads, with all roles other than the omnipresent three witches either absent or played by two peripatetic and versatile singers (Doug Jones and Robin Buck). The multifarious talents of Suzan Hanson (Lady Macbeth) are no surprise to LBO audiences after 10 or more impressive appearances, but the revelation here is the towering Macbeth of Nmon Ford: matinee-idol handsome, with a rich and supple baritone capable of both power and subtlety. He radiates star quality while above all making a complex emotional creation of his conflicted antihero, projecting both vulnerability and arrogance in sensitive proportions.

Felicitously, he embodies a much younger Macbeth than conventionally portrayed, which in truth suits the character far more appropriately, though less experienced actors are often not considered of the necessary stature for the role. Ford has that stature, and this is as memorable a Macbeth as any assaying the part without benefit of the intricacies of classical singing.  

Following its Los Angeles run, the production moves to Chicago Opera Theatre, Sept. 13-21.

Venue: Long Beach Opera at Berth 52, San Pedro Harbor, Los Angeles (runs through June 23)

Cast: Nmon Ford, Suzan Hanson, Doug Jones, Robin Buck, Ariel Pisturino, Danielle Marcelle Bond, Nandani Sinha

Composer: Ernest Bloch

Libretto: French original by Edmond Fleg, from the play by William Shakespeare, English version from 1950 by Alex Cohen and the composer

Conductor: Benjamin Makino

Stage director & production designer: Andreas Mitisek

Lighting designer: Dan Weingarten