Cher Public

Daggers are a thane’s best friend

macbeth-1How often do you hear Macbeth with four really good singers in its four big roles? Not every day, right? It’s a tough scone to crack. 

The road through the Brooklyn Naval Yard from the nearest bus or subway or parking lot twists and turns and the signage confuses. And it’s cold out there, though well lit. But it’s Brooklyn, after all. And it’s LoftOpera’s Macbeth.

LoftOpera is the lively company that haunts the bleaker neighborhoods of Brooklyn—discos and factories and cabarets—sites crying out for good opera. Mysteriously, after a run of hits by Rossini, Donizetti, Mozart, even Britten, they have never given a Verdi opera. Until now. They’ve turned their talents to … the Scottish tragedy! No one’s idea of a toss-off.

Macbeth calls for atmosphere and action and psychological intensity as well as great singing—and the singing is by no means easy. Too, it’s an opera with rival valid editions: the 1847 original, the 1865 “grand opera” rewrite, and various negotiations between the two. And then there are witches. And apparitions. And cast members assigned to vanish into thin air.

LoftOpera got much of this right. Especially the voices.

Let’s start with Craig Irvin, who sings Macbeth. The thane works himself up to deeds he knows are wicked—and to further wickedness when he finds that pulling it off does not make him happy. He puts faith in supernatural powers though he knows they do not have his good at heart, and meets the logical reward. His doubleness, his deeds without names shudder beneath the full voicing of one of Verdi’s great baritone roles. One thinks of the skillful use Leonard Warren made of a certain hollowness under his sound to suggest his despair.

Irvin is a true Verdi baritone, a virile outpouring of sound. He seems light for this role, at least in the cavern that is Building 128, perhaps because his diction is so clear and he is so close to the audience (a usual LoftOpera feature). Can he take us through the post-murder duet against a strong soprano or the shattering visions at the banquet? Will he husband sufficient power for the long, arched line of “Pieta, rispetta”? He did!

The voice does not seem enormous but he knows how to wield it, how to place it (in his chest and in the theater) so that it sounds big when it ought to, in the great public scenes, and introspective otherwise. This was a performance to give pleasure to the Verdi lover’s heart, and will become, I imagine, even more so as the run continues (through December 18).

Too, I sympathized with the poor man for having to work with a director, Laine Rettmer, many of whose ideas seemed designed to distract us from the dull business of singing an opera. Rettmer demands that Macbeth sing “Pieta, rispetta” into the great boulder that constitutes most of the set—and that he do it while Lady Macbeth (who, per Verdi, has made her final exit by now) appears atop the boulder in a crimson dress (lest you accidentally pay attention to the guy doing the work), cheerily slitting her wrists.

macbeth-2Lady Macbeth is one of those parts, like Norma, Carmen, Donna Anna, that seldom gets an ideal performance: She demands too much, of the singer and the actress. Too, due to the 1865 revision which focused on the Lady, the demands are unbalanced. At LoftOpera, director Rettmer has decided to make her “lovable,” and has done so not merely by having all her vocal interactions with Macbeth verge upon the coital (all current directors hit this mark), smooching about the floor while singing of bloody vengeance (as don’t we all?), but also by “staging the overture” with a flashback to the tragic loss of her young son, an event unremarked by history, Shakespeare or Verdi.

Elizabeth Baldwin, the soprano entrusted with the role, has large, expressive eyes and a large, expressive voice, a searing but creamy top, a less secure mid-voice, and the necessary agility. Her Brindisi was exceptionally well honed, a rare feature in any Macbeth. Baldwin made the Lady’s hysteria and bloodthirst credible.

I think it creepy to have Macbeth on stage during “La luce langue,” her soliloquy, but she sang it intensely, pawing him the whiles. Her sleepwalking, however, was not in character, unawake, haunted, entranced, in voice or acting. And surely anyone would wake up when pouring a pitcher of cold wine on top of herself. But I’m not certain Baldwin herself, who seems to have sure theatrical instincts, is to blame for that absurdity.

Banquo was Kevin Thompson, who possesses the dignified physique du role and the anchoring deep bass notes for his solos and the ensembles, though they seemed a bit detached from his upper range.

Peter Scott Drackley sang Macduff with a lovely lyric tenor and a fine command of Verdian line; “Ah, la paterna mano” was pretty and would, I daresay, have been moving as well except that, for some reason, Drackley sang it with his hands and face drenched in blood. Our natural conclusion was that he has murdered his children himself.

In the play and the opera, of course, he is in England and has received a letter about it, but unless someone has also thoughtfully shipped him the bleeding corpses, it is difficult to account for his bespatter. Does the director imagine we won’t understand what he’s singing about? Thanks to her, indeed we don’t.

To get a Macbeth with four excellent singers in the four leading roles is so rare—but then, LoftOpera’s casting is usually choice—that I unhesitatingly recommend the production to Verdi lovers (wear warm socks and comfortable shoes). Among the lesser roles, Ashley Curling was an impressive “Dama di Lady,” Kofi Hayford an agile Assassin, Martin Schreiner an acceptable Malcolm.

Benjamin Forester isn’t nearly old enough for Duncan—he should gray his hair and wear less athletic footgear. (Running shoes on a corpse? On a corpse who has been murdered after retiring to bed?) We all get it that the Apparitions, emerging from a smoky pit, are not actually singing their lines (which come from the balcony), but they might pose and gesture as if they were singing them.

The last small-company Macbeth that New York saw was dell’Arte Opera Ensemble’s, which did not make use of a chorus—the witches were sung by three individual women, which kind of worked—and did not have many top-notch singers. LoftOpera had a very lively chorus, perched so close to the audience that their voices did not blend properly—one heard the second alto and second bass parts more clearly than one ever does at, say, the Met, where the Refugees’ Chorus is the high point of any performance of Macbeth.

As witches they were self-consciously eldritch and silly, but that too is traditional (and true at the Met). The sword fight (knives of course) was acceptable. The anarchy at the Banquet (only Macbeth can see the Ghost, remember) was intriguingly out of control. The shadowy apparitions of future kings across the rusticated brick and stone inner façade of the building were elegantly handled. (Lighting by Joan Racho-Jansen.)

Andrea Merks created a handsome and apparently sturdy boulder (which poor Macbeth has to push across the stage, like Sisyphus) and Rachel Dainer-Best is credited for the unfussy modern costumes. (Murderers wear hoodies; murderees wear trainers; everybody knows that.) I liked the crimson dress for Lady Macbeth’s coronation banquet; during Macbeth’s aria, not so much. And I liked the first image (during the overture) of a witch cutting crowns out of flash paper and then setting them off, whoever it was came up with it.

One great pleasure at this performance was that, unlike, say, Aida at the Met, the cast and the chorus directed their acting at us, and did not keep their eyes fixed immovably on the conductor. That might have been awkward, as the band were way over at audience right. The maestro, Sean Kelly, modestly assured me that there were monitors over our heads for them to watch, and that he was gesticulating with abandon, but hey, I didn’t notice that, so the results worked for me.

The war chorus that should sprout up vigorously after the refugees have had their say could be more sprightly, the contrast more fierce, and the battle scenes are vague enough to resemble the tedium of actual warfare. But this was a far better than average Macbeth. Bravos to a lot of fine musicians.

It’s a mighty long walk from the subway through the Brooklyn Navy Yard to the Mast Brothers chocolate factory, a cavernous loft structure with a long echo. LoftOpera should not sell bottles of beer at intermission. Opera fans cannot, cannot, keep from kicking them over on the cement floors all night. We’d prefer something warmer anyway. Tea. Hot chocolate. Eyes of newt. It’s confusing on that walk, and it is very, very cold.

Photos: Robert Altman

  • The Macbeth is Craig *Irvin*.

  • grimoaldo2

    Also a very enthusiastic notice in the NYT by the wonderfully named
    Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/09/arts/music/classical-music-this-week-nyc.html?_r=0

  • Baritenor

    ” but also by “staging the overture” with a flashback to the tragic loss of her young son, an event unremarked by history, Shakespeare or Verdi.”

    Not entirely true. Shakespeare’s Lady M. Says the following:
    ” I have given suck, and know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me. i would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out, had i sworn as you have done to this”

    This line, and a handful of others, have regularly been seen by directors and scholars as a lynchpin and many productions either feature or indicate the Macbeths as bereaved parents. In fact I don’t know that I’ve seen a production in the past ten years that did not in some way reference that idea.

    • John Yohalem

      No, Baritenor. What I said is ENTIRELY true. Directors make use it as a linchpin (as this one did), but Shakespeare and Verdi ostentatiously do NOT. Shakespeare uses the sentence as evidence of just how cold-bloodedly cruel she is (or thinks she is).

      Shakespeare says she had a child or two. She DID have a son, but he survived her and briefly ascended the throne. Trying to make Lady M “nice” in the teeth of Shakespeare’s and Verdi’s belief in her wickedness is what offended me, one of many “directorial” liberties that violated the opera’s premises and implied distrust of the material.

      If you want a more lovable Lady Macbeth, try the heroine of Gordon Bottomley’s Gruach (1921), in which the young noblewoman sleepwalks her way into the heart of the King’s Envoy (i.e. Macbeth). Or write another such drama. But it does not belong in Shakespeare or Verdi, and is specifically excluded by both.

      • Alexa DuChampignon

        I think what offends me is a static view of a play or opera without contemplating potential factors or reasons for the motivation of a character. Heck, even the most one dimensional role, Turandot gets a chance with different productions to present herself as a bitch, a victim, or whatever. How suffocating to say: “there’s one way to play a role -- balls to the wall WICKED.” Zzzzzzz.

        • John Yohalem

          Oh, contemplate motivations by all means! But this is a stupid one. How do you feel about the suggestion that a woman only develops political ambitions because she hasn’t got children? Or that, having lost her child, she has no compunction about slaughtering other people’s children? I don’t see much real-world psychology in that, and I don’t see the slightest sign of it in the character in the opera. Directors of opera who invent their own stories because they don’t find inspiration in the one the composer has set (cf. the Met’s current Tristan und Isolde) get no pass from me.

          • Alexa DuChampignon

            You’re so easy to dismiss things as “stupid”. Have you heard of the age old stigma that women can only succeed if they are ruthless? Is it possible that in this production they were putting that idea out there in an ironic fashion? Again, I don’t understand your static view of things, and that’s just fine. Chacon a son gout.