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Thomas Hampson as Macbeth and Nadja Michael as Lady Macbeth [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]
13 Oct 2010

Verdi’s Macbeth in a New Production at Lyric Opera of Chicago

A successful production of Verdi’s Macbeth relies not only on incisive vocal characterization as projected by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth but also on the interaction of these lead figures in order to vivify their descent into a world of destruction.

Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth

Macbeth: Thomas Hampson; Lady Macbeth: Nadja Michael; Macduff: Leonardo Capalbo; Banquo: Štefan Kocán; Lady in Waiting: Carter Scott; Malcolm: Konstantin Stepanov; Servant/Assassin/Herald/Doctor: Sam Handley; First Apparition: Evan Boyer; Second Apparition: Jennifer Jakob; Third Apparition: Amanda Majeski. Conductor: Renato Palumbo. Director: Barbara Gaines. Set Designer: James Noone. Costume Designer: Virgil C. Johnson. Lighting Designer: Robert Wierzel. Chorus Master: Donald Nally. Choreographer: Harrison McEldowney.

Above: Thomas Hampson as Macbeth and Nadja Michael as Lady Macbeth

All photos by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago


On these two counts Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new conception of Macbeth scores a significant triumph. Under the stage direction of Barbara Gaines, founder and artistic director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, this new production is conceived as alternately expansive and restricting, thus highlighting the ambitions and emotional as well as political collapse of the royal couple’s murderous plans. In the title role Thomas Hampson gives a multi-faceted depiction of this complex character, his acting and singing coalescing into a strong and individual interpretation. All other leading roles in this production are very well cast by international artists making their debuts this season at Lyric Opera: Nadja Michael as Lady Macbeth, Štefan Kocán as Banquo, Leonardo Capalbo as Macduff, Konstantin Stepanov as Malcolm, and Carter Scott as both Lady Banquo and the Lady in Waiting. The Lyric Opera Orchestra is led by Renato Palumbo and Donald Nally directs the generous contributions of the Lyric Opera Chorus.

Macbeth_Chicago_2010_01.gifThomas Hampson as Macbeth

Before the overture begins the stage is sheathed by a cover approximating armor, at the base of which is depicted a stylized forest with soldiers. The brief overture under Palumbo’s direction showed sensitive attention to tempo and orchestral colors with brief pauses and transitions well integrated into the whole. At its close the stage covering opens at center to reveal the simulated shooting flames of golden fire surrounded by a large chorus of hags. Suspended above them and careening through the air are three witches who join with the other groups below to recount their supernatural activities. At the sound of drums Macbeth and Banco enter and demand that the witches identify themselves. In answer they hail Macbeth, in succession, “di Caudor sire” and “di Scozia re.” As Macbeth, Mr. Hampson declaimed from the start in full voice while demanding a greeting from the witches. In the role of his fellow general Banco Mr. Kocán layered his resonant voice with dramatic effect, his diction showing an equally incisive understanding of Verdi’s textual import. In their duet as a response to the first of the witches’ predictions being realized both singers followed an effective vocal line yet each differentiated the same in technical delivery. Hampson moved impressively from piano to full dramatic voice, while Kocán used a striking bel canto approach within a seamless and well projected vocal range. As the pair departs and the chorus of witches predicts Macbeth’s return [“Fuggiam, fuggiam!” (“Hasten away, hasten!”)], the sets retract to show Lady Macbeth simultaneously in their castle already reading Macbeth’s letter. This fluid transition connects the two scenes directly, so that the Lady’s reaction gains immediacy upon Macbeth’s revelation. In her pronouncements after a chilling recitation of the letter Nadja Michael reveals a dramatically forceful delivery in which she urges Macbeth to take courage and seize the opportunity of the moment. Ms. Michael’s approach to this and subsequent scenes relies on several points of vocal focus which she alternates with expressive transitions in order to communicate a range of emotions. Her invocation of the spirits of the underworld [“Ministri infernali”] to lend their evil support is performed as several voices blending into one with softer downward runs suggesting her own spiritual descent. During the aria Ms. Michael placed lit candles about the room in a circle suggesting a further hope to ally herself with demonic forces. Once Macbeth arrives with Duncan as guest, the couple comes to agreement on the King’s fate in a mere several lines. In his delivery of Macbeth’s soliloquy before the King’s chamber Hampson’s excited emotions ascend to a crescendo as he intones the self-convincing speech, his voice rising through the words “assassino” (“murderer”) and culminating with dramatic top notes on “Immobil terra!” (“Firm-set earth”). Once the deed is declared done [“Tutto è finito”] Macbeth and the Lady participate in a nervous exchange during which she takes a dominant role. Here the voices of Hampson and Michael blended and alternately moved apart to suggest their complex roles of dependency and revulsion. In the final scene of this act Macduff and Banco enter to rouse the King and prepare him to journey further. It is Macduff who discovers the murdered King and decries the vile deed [“Orrore, orrore”]. Mr. Capalbo in a noteworthy debut sings the role of Macduff with urgent, bright tones that command attention to his honest pleas for the King’s memory. As everyone present sings in unison to demand justice and counsel from God, Macbeth and the Lady join in condemning the deed they have themselves committed.

Macbeth_Chicago_2010_02.gifNadja Michael as Lady Macbeth

In Act II the royal couple descends to further iniquity with Lady Macbeth taking the vocal lead in expressing complicity. Macbeth reminds her of the predictions relating to Banco and the need to murder him in order to assure a clear path to the throne. Lady Macbeth agrees in her haunting aria “La luce langue” (“Light thickens”), which Michael sings with understated hushed tones, capped by powerful high notes. As the scene changes the assassins, who will kill Macbeth’s rival, position themselves on a steep wall in a wooded park and practice their forthcoming attack. Their pantomime is choreographed by the production team with dance-like movements befitting the sprightly music composed by Verdi for the start of this scene. Banco then arrives on the path with his son Fleanzio. Here the father issues multiple warnings and speaks of his concern for safety and treachery. In his major solo aria Kocán combined elegant legato phrasing in significant passages [“sospetto” (“suspicion”)] with a rich tone culminating in the convincingly delivered dramatic notes of “terror.” His son is here whisked to safety by one of the suspended flying figures, returned from Act I, as Banco succumbs to the assassins. The final scene of this act in the banquet hall is staged with frenetic, drunken movements as King Macbeth is confronted several times by the ghost of Banco. At the King’s urging the Lady sings her toast “Si colmi il calice” (“Fill up the cup”), interrupted repeatedly by Macbeth’s visions. In the faster passagework of her aria Michael tended to sing sharp, an impression in character on which she drew rather than giving steady, full voice to all dramatic moments. The scene closes with the guests dismayed by their new King’s mental abandon.

In the brief Act III Macbeth visits the witches again, the latter delivering their seemingly impossible predictions for his defeat. In the orchestral introduction Palumbo emphasized skillfully several themes from the earlier overture, hence lending a sonic unity to the individual, collective scenes. Hampson’s impressive confrontation and reaction in his vocal display made use of forte singing that suggested a continued and desperate search. After his address to the recurrent vision of Banco, Hampson modulated his voice into an even, full line of returning courage that Lady Macbeth goads into further deeds of violence. [“Ora di morte e di vendetta” (“Hour of death and of vengeance”).

As Act IV begins the staging is redolent of suffering, calling out for the pity of all who look upon this scene of the “Patria oppressa!” (“Downtrodden county!”). Macduff proceeds from one group to another at the start, as he then laments the murder of his family by Macbeth’s forces. In his moving aria, “Ah, la paterna mano” (“Alas, a father’s hand”) Capalbo shows himself as a true, Verdian lyric tenor, with effortless and polished legato, secure top notes, and a skillful placement of diminuendo. The scene remains one of several highlights in the production. He is immediately joined by Malcolm as they plan to attack the forces of Macbeth. Just as the two depart, Lady Macbeth is seen wandering onto the stage, reminiscent of the technique used for her entrance during Act I. Now she appears soiled, covered in blood, yet still holding a candle. The sleepwalking scene is a true synthesis of Michael’s character interpretation, her voice and acting joining into a specter of madness. In her delusion she attempts to rouse Macbeth, who lays covered with a rag downstage on the right. As he repulses her advances Michael sings with an effective blend of dramatic force and extended piano notes while reliving their deeds of violence. Her chilling conclusion on “il tuo pallor” (“your pallor”) makes use of this technical shift in a final display of madness, capped by a ghostly head note.

Macbeth_Chicago_2010_03.gifThomas Hampson as Macbeth and Nadja Michael as Lady Macbeth

The final scenes show Macbeth attempting to summon his courage one last time before he hears news of the Queen’s death. Paradoxically, in his final aria “Pietà, rispetto, amore” (“Compassion, honor, love”) Hampson applies an elegance of phrasing and lyrical decoration to give the image of Macbeth, on the point of defeat, still caught up in his self-delusional trust in power. When he hears that he is now alone, he rushes off to do battle against the forces of Malcolm. The final chorus of victory declares that Macduff’s blow to Macbeth has restored trust to Scotland. With this admirable, new production Lyric Opera of Chicago has likewise restored Verdi’s Macbeth to it repertoire of artistic achievements.

Salvatore Calomino

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