As part of its opening week Opera Philadelphia presented a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth in the small Prince Theater in cooperation with the “Philly Fringe.” This was by the Third World Bunfight Company from South Africa. The director/conceiver, Brett Bailey, Caucasian “from University” remarked in a talkback afterward that he had been commissioned to “do an opera. I hate opera but wanted the commission so I looked through a book with all the stupid plots and saw there was an opera of Macbeth. I thought it would serve to make a play about the massacres in the Congo.”
The holocaust in Africa is devastating, as is the apparent indifference to it of the First World. But how Verdi’s opera might address this particular nightmare was unclear. Macbeth and his Lady in play and opera kill to gain and protect their power. They are not exterminators of vast populations. They use the witches as an excuse to act, but both are essentially viciously ambitious and grandiose. Bailey mentioned African voodoo rituals but none were evident on stage, nor is that kind of eerie quasi-mystical belief system supported in the opera.
About three-quarters of Verdi’s score was performed, in Italian, no less. The production style would have seemed dated in 1970’s off-off Broadway. What those producers and directors who not recipients of international grants might have envied was the luxury of Third World Bunfight’s budget, which allowed for 12 professional musicians, including two virtuoso percussionists (Dylan Tabisher and Cheriles Adam), the alert conductor Premil Petrovic, a state of the art light board and a well-functioning high quality projection system.
This was a confusing parallel presentation: slides of dead dictators and child soldiers were projected on a backboard, along with dense prose “factoids” about nightmarish real events in the Congo. Meanwhile, the opera in Italian went on, sung in a legitimate manner by singers who were far more compelling than the slide show behind them.
But let’s leave behind the agitprop, which would have been more effectively and terrifyingly presented in a low-budget documentary.
What made this production fun was the highly musical “arrangement” of the opera by the Belgian composer/saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol. His re-orchestration was witty and inventive but it was true to Verdi in its swing and energy. Abridging of longer sections and some rewriting of vocal lines was artfully done, not even the few extensive cuts did real damage to Verdi’s thinking. His use of a fragment of “Patria oppressa” as a recurring theme sung by the chorus (according to Bailey it was Cassol’s idea) was simple but effective. His occasional use of a mild pop style was engaging.
The cast, singers of color who performed all the solos and functioned as a chorus, sat stage right staring out at the audience before the show began. The orchestra tuned stage left. A small high platform was the center, with areas in front and to each side also used. A little stairway from which “Lady” sang the Sleepwalking Scene descended from stage left of this platform. There were simple but clear costume pieces.
The singers were thrilling. No one should say there are no great voices in the world. The entire singing company was musically and vocally gifted, and hugely personable. The two leads, Owen Metsileng as Macbeth and Nobulemko Mngxekeza as Lady Macbeth were stunning. Everyone sang in good, clear, idiomatically inflected Italian. But the two leads had impressive verbal skills, handling the words vividly and with abundant flavor.
Ms. Mngxekeza had tremendous charisma. This Lady Macbeth is a laundress who drives her husband to kill “the commander.” Once in power, she changes her image to a pop star. Imelda Marcos was apparently the model for this character arc. Mngxekeza got to don bling, big shoes, and sing “La luce langue” under a disco ball (talk about clichés!) and then, in a fancy dress drawn taut about a voluptuous figure strut through the Brindisi. Perhaps this was supposed to be chilling camp, but I found it irresistible.
Ms. Mngxekeza has vast charisma and endless wit, every move was mesmerizing, and she possesses a stunning voice. Hers is a glorious sound, a mezzo one thinks, deep, rich and massive. She can move up easily to a certain point and simply deafen a listener. In the sleepwalking scene, sung very simply with profound sincerity, she was deeply moving and also managed a good whistle voice high D-flat. This is a massive talent. And seen at the talk back she is still in reality a giggly girl!
Mr. Metsileng is a Verdi baritone, pure and simple. He is the best Macbeth I have heard this century. He has a big, gorgeous voice, thrilling at an effortlessly produced full volume but he also has a breathtakingly sweet and floating head voice. The higher passages posed no problems. His Italian had eloquence and he had a seemingly instinctive grasp of the style. Although he was plausibly formidable and dangerous, like Ms. Mngxekeza his charisma was that of a star.
Last Friday night was the “gala” opening of Opera Philadelphia’s season. Naturally, a familiar opera that invites spectacle and opera screaming was chosen. This season it was Turandot. Sometimes Opera Philadelphia has done these evenings well, as when, a few seasons ago, they did a musically solid, theatrically imaginative Nabucco. This time, not so much.
Puccini had an enormous talent for brilliant orchestration, a product of a lifetime’s experience and close study of non-Italian models. But as with most regional companies, Opera Philadelphia does not have a standing orchestra. These are good players. But the challenges of playing so dense and virtuosic a score can only be met through the experience of playing this kind of music, and of playing together. This group had substantial tuning and ensemble problems. The company’s Musical Director Corrado Rovaris knows the style but had to sacrifice interpretive intent to keep things on track.
The unit set was handsome, and there were very colorful if rather frothy costumes (both by André Barbe). After complaints by the local Asian community the company had rolled back some “oriental” make up.
The production by Renaud Doucet was grotesque. The chorus (musically well drilled if not tonally resplendent) humped the stage in time to the executioner’s entrance in act one.
Peking in the opera is ruled by a Princess, but there were also three queens about, Ping, Pong, and Pang. The singers, all good musicians with fine voices, were directed to flame through their roles with stereotyped gestures that would have seemed a bit much in The Boys in the Band. Their scene that starts act two, arguably the most moving music in the opera, filled with nostalgia and a discreet sadness, ended with them doing a long fan dance—(see the stage humping above). Well, it’s a job and I hope Daniel Belcher (Ping), Julius Ahn (Pang), and Joseph Gaines (Pong) were well compensated.
Liu didn’t discreetly snatch a knife and stab herself under her robes, she stole a giant wooden snickersnee from a drowsy executioner and cut her throat—but no eruption of blood, gurgles or death agony. Although I personally have my doubts about her long final scene, wondering if it isn’t simply manipulative and overdrawn, the clumsy handling of her “torture” and this crazy touch very neatly rendered it totally false and ridiculous.
The Prince of Persia back in act one was a barely adolescent boy. Though the director took some pains later to humanize Turandot how is that possible after she signals for a youngster to be killed? And wasn’t there an age of consent in Old Peking? Then after the funeral music, there was an endless pause as chorus ambled off after dead Liu and grieving Timur. Why was this choice made? Was it a mirror of the grandstanding Toscanini’s stopping the first performance here? Or was it just more ineptitude? The Alfano duet needs all the help it can get to seem like an inevitable part of the opera and this choice killed that.
The best performance came from the remarkable Morris Robinson as Timur though he had been invited to ham things up, and did in a faintly frightening way. In grief he put his huge head on little Ping’s shoulder. Would an aristocrat let an old beggar—as Ping would perceive Timur—weep on him?)
Many unpleasant things have been said on parterre about Marco Berti, so I see no need to be redundant. Joyce El-Khouri (Liu) has a pleasant fluttery lyric voice and a nice float but her long final scene went south, partially because of a surprisingly indifferent accompaniment from Rovaris and partially because of its ludicrous staging.
Christine Goeke has become a star after a long struggle with a huge voice that for the first part of her career was imposing but recalcitrant. Still, Turandot may not really be an ideal role for her (although she sang it to praise at the Metropolitan Opera). She has the high notes and they project but not with the sort of impact Puccini seems to have counted on.
Her best moment was Alfano’s “Del primo pianto,” where her large, lush and fascinating lower range came into play and she showed her formidable musical and interpretive prowess. She also did well in “Figlio del cielo” where she suggested vulnerability and anguish with some eloquence. There the climactic high C’s were well attached to the voice and had appropriate thrust. But that writing is different from much of the role where the singer is called on to pump out volume very high in the range.
Well, the people behind me screamed “Hooray for the opera” through the bows. So it was a success locally and will be shown at Independence Mall this Saturday. But for my taste, better luck next year.
Photos: Kelly & Massa Photography (Turandot); Dominic M. Mercier (Macbeth)