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Macbeth, revisited: Opera North stages stirring production

  • Sandra Lopez, as Lady Macbeth, and Marcello Guzzo, as Macbeth, sing before a banquet of guests during a technical rehearsal of Opera North's production of Verdi's Macbeth at the Lebanon (N.H.) Opera House, Wednesday, July 31, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Artistic Director Louis Burkot conducts during a rehearsal of Opera North's production of Verdi's Macbeth at the Lebanon (N.H.) Opera House, Wednesday, July 31, 2019. The opera runs from August 4 to 10. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Marcelo Guzzo, as Macbeth, and witches during a dress rehearsal for the Opera North production of "Macbeth" in Lebanon, N.H. (Lars Blackmore photograph)

  • Sandra Lopez, as Lady Macbeth, right, Caitlin Powell, as Lady in Waiting, and Joseph Trumbo, as Doctor, during a dress rehearsal for the Opera North production of "Macbeth" in Lebanon, N.H. (Lars Blackmore photograph)



Valley News Correspondent
Monday, August 05, 2019

Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth, the first of his three Shakespeare adaptations, had its premiere in 1847, less than a year before the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe that called for increased democratic reform, and revolt against monarchy.

Whether or not Verdi was obliquely or directly alluding to the popular struggle against the caprices of monarchy and tyranny, his version of Macbeth is a darkly thrilling study in the use and abuse of power that debuted in a period when powerful currents of public restlessness, anger and dissatisfaction with the status quo surged throughout Europe.

Those same sentiments are writ large in the modern political climate, of course. It’s impossible not to think of them while watching Opera North’s trenchant, stirring production of Macbeth, which runs at the Lebanon Opera House with three more performances through Aug. 10.

Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Pave distilled Shakespeare’s tragedy to the essence, jettisoning, for the most part, lesser supporting characters and scenes and concentrating on the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, which is less love story, more Murder, Inc. Instead of three witches, there is a coven that predicts Macbeth’s sudden rise and precipitous fall.

The production is notable for a number of reasons, quite apart from Verdi’s brooding musical summoning of the sinister forces, both external and internal, that transform Macbeth from war hero to murderer of both King Duncan and Macbeth’s trusted general Banquo, to a guilt-ridden shell.

Director Helena Binder and set designer Tony Cisek have made the artistically ingenious decision to frame the drama with a set of floor-to-ceiling gauzy, translucent panels which can glide horizontally or vertically across the stage.

Although the singers are in a rough approximation of medieval dress, there’s no period setting, except for a throne, which focuses attention on the sound and the drama in a way that a conventional set might not.

When the singers stand or appear from behind the panels, you see them as rough shapes, suggesting inchoate, not-yet-understood forces that will turn the tide this way or that. The fluid, flickering lighting design of John Salutz amplifies this sense of uncertainty, pessimism and fear.

These elements of light and shadow set the stage for Verdi’s shuddering score, with its agitated tremors in the strings, the sharp, ominous calls of the brass, the menacing rumbles of percussion. Conductor Louis Burkot harnesses the score’s considerable power, eliciting a performance by the Opera North orchestra that is equal parts suspense and tragedy.

Where the majority of operas traditionally place emphasis, in male roles, on the lyric tenor, Macbeth’s main male roles are pitched lower, to the sonorous baritones, fitting given the source material.

In the role of Macbeth, baritone Marcello Guzzo has a plangent voice and looming stage presence; he’s able to balance Macbeth’s bravado with his gnawing insecurity.

Sandra Lopez has a brilliant, forceful soprano voice, although she does not always exude the icy calculation which characterizes Lady Macbeth.

Prosper Makhanya, as Banquo, has a supple, resonant baritone and a gravitas as the man who gradually realizes Macbeth’s treachery. A standout is Levi Hamlin as Macduff, who sings with an ardent fervor in his Act IV aria in which he vows vengeance against Macbeth for murdering his wife and son.

As in many of his works, it is the chorus to which Verdi awards some of his most intensely felt passages. We may or may not empathize with all of Verdi’s protagonists, but his choruses speak to our primal emotions.

At the end of Act I, the chorus sings behind Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, calling for revenge on the murderers of Duncan. There’s a horror here, but also an implacable public will. Vengeance will be mine.

For Act IV Verdi reversed the mood, inventing the chorus “Patria Oppressa,” an affecting, eloquent set piece not in the play, in which a public chorus, exhausted by internecine war and violence, mournfully laments the fate of the country.

Such scenes embody music’s uncanny ability to call forth our deepest, most instinctive responses in a way which words on a page or images on a screen do not always.

And although ours is a corrosive age, works such as Verdi’s Macbeth remind us of the unholy consequences of deceit and violence.

In Binder’s direction, a cold hard light shines when, after Macbeth’s death, King Duncan’s son Malcolm assumes the throne. Is Malcolm’s ascent a cause for rejoicing or is it the beginning of more mayhem? We don’t know.

‘Macbeth’ continues at the Lebanon Opera House on Tuesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday at 5 p.m. Running time, with intermission, is 2 hours, 20 minutes. For information and tickets go to lebanonoperahouse.org, or call 603-448-0400.