A Birnam Wood of Macbeths and Ladys has come traipsing through New York this year. Dell’ Arte Opera staged Verdi’s early masterpiece last Summer, and the Met revived its grandiose production of the work back in the Fall. The Met followed that up with a splendid revival of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. And now the Manhattan School of Music’s Opera Theater program (through Sunday) is giving performances of Ernest Bloch’s opera of the same (only to be whispered) name.
This is actually the American premiere of the original French libretto and the score’s first local hearing since the Juilliard School presented it in English back in 1973.
Bloch, a Swiss admirer of Debussy (echoes of Pelléas et Mélisande, an opera he worshiped, ripple through the score), took four years to complete Macbeth. Premiered in Paris in 1910, it was not a hit. Bloch emigrated to the United States in 1916. Jewish tradition is the principal theme of his work during the following forty years; Schelomo, a fantasia for cello and orchestra, is his best-known creation. He never wrote another opera.
Little in Macbeth makes me feel—as I feel at Bluebeard’s Castle or King Roger or Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk or El Gato con Botas—that it’s too bad the composer gave up the lyric stage, that he would certainly have produced treasures had he stuck with it. Macbeth is expertly crafted but not a dramatically memorable work. The method of Pelléas, with its indefinite character and veiled emotions, is not suitable to a vivid story of blood and battle and satanic power.
Bloch suggests things when greater vehemence might make a more striking impression. He has a gift for orchestration that the MSM orchestra, though expertly led by Laurent Pillot, had not entirely mastered by the first night—not all the quirky, uneasy instrumental harmonics in the reduced version used here can be attributed to Bloch’s intentions.
The supernatural, however, brings Bloch’s inventiveness into focus: He gives witches and apparitions an appealing eeriness. But these mysterious goings-on, plus the occasional murder, too often resolve in rather basic, tonally primitive ways that seem out of place here, an abrupt return to the natural world from the supernatural. There is little vocalism for its own sake—the score is background to a play sung in declamatory fashion, something like a Korngold film score a quarter century later.
Film scores did not exist yet in 1910, but had sound films been around, that would have been Bloch’s likeliest creative direction. He also had a gift for choral writing, however, and his mastery and variety were fully matched by the Manhattan School forces, who are led by Miriam Charney.
The vocal requirements of Macbeth are rather heavier than, say, Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, presented at the Juilliard School last month by singers who often seemed talented but less than ideally mature. This is a drawback to any school performance, but MSM’s Macbeth was full of passionate, skilled, dedicated singing from a very likely set of performers whose further careers I anticipate with pleasure.
Robert Mellon, a young alumnus, sang the title role with a dark baritone, full and fresh and quick with dramatic fire. He also appears to have studied stage movement and swordplay; a Ninja sensibility enlivened the scenes of violence (set up by fight director Adam Alexander).
His Lady was Maria Natale, who has sung such dainty ladies as Liu and the Countess but here seemed to be in full Alexis Carrington mode. She is a handsome woman with a dark and voluptuous soprano of vampire sexuality, goading her husband to regicide, her calculating eyes on the characters she is sizing up for future use.
The stage director, by the way, was Dona B. Vaughn, who runs the MSM opera program, and most of her ideas were straightforward and proper, the setting handsomely medieval. My only major regret was that she followed current fashion in having the Cawdors couple and fumble at each other whenever they were alone, though such notions never entered the composer’s head, and they were constantly interrupted in not-quite-coitus by servants or Banquo’s Ghost. This renders the story much sillier than it needs to be; it’s a portrait of a marriage, not a one-night stand.
The Witches were Catherine Swindle, Lisa Barone and Niru Liu, ably assisted by Michelle Siemens as an apparition. Strong voices and personality poised between woodsy and portentous, with tidy dance moves and headdresses of bush, scrub and thorn, from which they plucked the ingredients for their nauseous stew—a useful hint for any of us with small kitchens.
Their bushy crowns and all the elegant costumes (attractive use of black and crimson and plaid—only doomed Lady Macduff, Brittany Nickell, got to wear blue) were the work of Daniel James Cole. There was nothing slapdash about the needlework, and the swords were full-size for once. (Don’t you hate opera stagings where characters draw their swords and it’s only a shiv?)
Banquo, a much smaller role than in Verdi, was ably sung and alarmingly ghosted by James Ludlum. Bloch omits the scene of the murder, and considering what a dog’s breakfast Verdi made of it, this is just as well. We didn’t need it: We knew perfectly well what Macbeth had done (the murderers interrupted the banquet to tell him so), and we knew who the Ghost was as soon as he jumped up from under the table.
Bloch and his librettist, Edmond Fleg, seem to be trying to condense and yet remain true to Shakespeare. Too, they are inimical to the operatic clichés, arias and duets, for example (never mind cabalettas), that Verdi was obliged to apply. Thus there is no letter scene or monologue for the Lady: She tells Macbeth exactly what she thinks he should do and why she doubts he’ll do it.
Duncan gets a few lines (Elliott Paige sang them), Malcolm (Carlton Moe) got to run off to England as well as return, and the offstage murder was followed, with no thrilling increase of tension, by the scene of the drunken Porter (Tobias Klassen, amusing and sonorous), the intrusion of Macduff (Xiaomeng Zhang) and Lennox (Gee Seop Kim) and even the old man complaining about the weather (Shi Li, whose deep voice was impressive but who must work on his breath control).
But Bloch did not make tense drama out of this by musical means, as Verdi so very much did. Bloch’s score merely plods from one accompanied point to another. The scene did not explode until the wild choral confusion that ends Act I, curiously the only moment I can recall from the 1973 Juilliard performance, when the chorus ran hither and thither, losing their heads in shock. This finale has all the passion and force the story requires and that Bloch usually cannot supply.
Act II gave us, besides the banquet, the touching scene of Lady Macduff and her children and their slaughter. Since Macbeth had not yet been warned to beware of Macduff, there seemed even less point for this than usual and the scene is not musically interesting. Act III gave us the witches’ spell and prophecies, and while the orchestra was having a good time and witches just want to have fun, there was little sense of a man forfeiting what little he retains of his soul.
The sleepwalking scene was brief and the chorus of exiles numb: It is wrong to compare these scenes invidiously to the titanic achievements of Verdi but impossible not to do so. Bloch provides fascinating orchestrations and no dramatic punch. This is a score that might be better enjoyed on a recording than in an opera house, though trotting it out once every forty years is not unreasonable, and if it is cast with singers like these, the opera will give pleasure to many ears.
The unit set by Michael V. Moore consisted of rows of Romanesque arches of varying heights in hues of gray and brown, their recession and creative lighting (by Tyler Micoleau) permitting a sort of bloodlit commentary on the turns of the plot, the thick pillars allowing a more convincing march of Birnam Wood than one usually sees in the play or its musicalizations.
Macbeth is a work more heard about than actually heard, rather like Halévy’s La Juive or Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. Those particular comparisons come to mind because La Juive was a hit at the Met in 2003 (where it had not been heard since 1936) and Tell (not heard at the Met since 1931 but said to be returning in two seasons’ time), was enthusiastically received last Sunday by a very full Carnegie Hall.
At Wednesday night’s Macbeth, the small (but not tiny) John C. Borden Auditorium was packed. Clearly New York does not lack for opera-goers; they just want to see something besides Aida and Carmen. They want to hear operas they know about but do not know, scores from the venerable past. Les Huguenots, anyone? A tale of religious intolerance leading to massacre could be relevant nowadays.