Sunday, February 2, 2014

Macbeth (Verdi)

Verdi's fidelity to Shakespeare weakens the dramatic structure of his opera. Shakespeare wrote the "Scottish Play" to curry favor with James I, applying the brakes to his narrative's frenetic pace to present a pageant of Scottish kings, a dumb-show of royalty dramatizing the noble pedigree of the new monarch. This sycophantic masque could probably be eliminated from the play without damaging its impact on modern audiences. And, yet, Verdi inexplicably stages that bit of special pleading, an advertisement for Shakespeare's availability for royal patronage. Verdi follows Shakespeare closely throughout the production and this results in some minor defects in the last half-hour of the show. The climax of Shakespeare's Macbeth is a verbal aria, one of the most stunning in literature, Macbeth's soliloquy upon learning that his wife has died -- "a tale of sound and fury told by idiot and signifying nothing" as we all remember. This spectacular peroration provides the play's emotional high-point and, for English speakers, is an unforgettable bi of poetry that justifies the rather cursory, and lackluster, battle scene that follows. Verdi, of course, doesn't have the resources of Shakespeare's English at his command, although, of course, his musical genius, perhaps, rivals the Elizabethan's verbal proficiency. Verdi has Macbeth atonally roar out the most famous line of the great soliloquy just before some sword-play. In the production of Macbeth that I saw on Saturday, February 1, 2014 (Minnesota Opera Company), Macduff appears, flashes his sword, and Macbeth, in a rather unimaginative bit of stagecraft, simply turns tail and runs off stage. It's an underwhelming sort of climax, true to Shakespeare, I think, but unsatisfying in a production that is sung in Italian and, therefore, stripped of the Bard's language. (A similar problem exists with Lady Macbeth's mad scene -- she paces in circles carrying a candle while a couple of servants speculate as to what is wrong with her -- then, exeunt. We are not shown what happens to her -- again, an instance of rather slavish fidelity to Shakespeare but, perhaps, ill-advised in Grand Opera where the audience, pays (and, indeed, has paid rather well) to see the villains crucified on-stage. In general, however, the Minnesota Opera Company's version of the opera was well-staged and, even, had a few mild shocks. In the banquet scene, servants bring out food on covered trays, and sure enough Banquo's severed head, eerily pale, shows up on the table -- it's an interesting way to manage the apparition scene and quite effective. Verdi doesn't use three weird sisters but a whole chorus of them, odd pullulating creatures dressed in black and wearing masks over their noses to suggest the beaks of crows. The crow-witches were directed to use curious bird-like motions, bobbing their heads like ravens and hissing like snakes. In the opening scene, they form a black writhing mass over a heap of dead soldiers and, as they depart, they reanimate the corpses who spring to semi-life as staggering, stumbling zombies -- some of them wear gas masks, an incongruous effect, that I didn't particularly like. The battle scenes at the end of the play are staged in typical Guthrie theater slow-motion, the characters pretending to gouge and stab at one another as if in a Peckinpah blood-bath shot 72 frames per second, an approach to the carnage that is unexciting in the theater and ineffective as well. (Theater has the benefit of real presence; it seems pointless to me to stage violence committed in the theater in a way as to suggest that the audience is watching a rather bad Peckinpah film -- why not make the violence seem quick, real, unexpected, even, undramatic, capitalizing on the fact that this is all happening to real people in a real space not fractured by montage?) The battle scene was also marred by this production's emphasis on stiletto-like daggers. Just before the big attack on Macbeth's castle, Macduff's shock troops draw their weapons, waving a bunch of stubby-looking knives -- it looks like they are about to storm the walls armed with steak-knives -- and the effect is unwittingly comical. Verdi also interpolates a completely meaningless ballet in the last third of the opera -- something about spirits of the air reviving Macbeth who has implausibly fainted. The ballet music is gorgeous and it would be a great loss to cut this part of the score, but surely something better can be done with this scene than having a few jackdaw-witches squat over Macbeth's supine body. The sets were gratuitously ugly -- it seemed as if the action was being staged in a suburb of Sarajevo particularly afflicted with horrible-looking prestressed concrete walls, stairs, and terraces. (This kind of set is also a cliche -- half of the Minnesota Opera company productions feature a couple battered-looking walls of something approximating concrete, usually scuffed and scarred as if a firing squad had used the wall for its work, some crooked-looking steps to nowhere, and a few shadowy doorways crudely hacked in the alleged cement.) This Minnesota Opera Company production was noteworthy for the participation of the swashbuckling Greer Grimsley, fresh from performing Wotan with the Metropolitan Opera Company. Grimsley has an extraordinary baritone and is a world-class singer. He has the capability of singing his lines in a brusque, if eloquent, bark and, then, suddenly in the midst of a high, long note modulating in a sweet,yearning melancholy -- he used this effect a number of times, and, always to my delight and the delight of the rest of the audience. The opera is crammed with wonderful melodies, none of them exactly memorable, but all of them gorgeous and perfectly suited to the action and if the singing is your reason attending the show (which it should be) this Macbeth was wonderful.

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