The general understanding in theatre is that there is a curse on Shakespeare’s Scottish play. I wonder in Anne Bogart’s new operatic production at Glimmerglass Festival, despite some wonderful singing, whether some of that curse didn’t leak over to create a bit of a soggy mash of an interpretation of Verdi’s opera.
Anne Bogart is a prolific and accomplished director, whose work I have long admired and especially in the partnership she has forged with Tadashi Suzuki and their company and training center SITI. I was thrilled to learn that she would be working at Glimmerglass and saw it as one more testament to Artistic Director Francesca Zambello and how seriously she takes the development of acting skills in forging opera for the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, any strong conceptual approach to directing risks not being able to carry its “stamp” through to the end of a work of this size. Or maybe it’s that curse thing again.
If you don’t know about the curse, just dip into historical records about Shakespeare productions where everything from inexplicably falling scenery to the alleged appearance of unaccountable Weird Sisters on the stage. Even the most famous actors have not been able to shake the curse. Diana Rigg and Anthony Hopkins at the height of their stage powers took on the challenge of the infamous Scottish couple. No one died in the production, but on opening night nearly every trap door got stuck, costumes got snagged, and the set’s steep staircase challenged to topple the leads through vertigo. I heard Hopkins scream as the final curtain came down, “Oh, this f _ _ _ _-ing play!” Hence, Bogart may have been dealing with forces beyond her control.
The mists off the Festival’s Otsego Lake are beautiful but can also be quite spooky and conjure a kind of Scottish “foul is fair” weather, and there’s plenty of “magical” lore that abounds in this New York region. But Bogart clearly wanted to distance her production from the locus and also the traditional murky landscapes for the opera and root it in a twentieth-century socio-political arena of fascism and tyranny. Under the bright lights of designer Robert Wierzel, the black military uniforms and high black boots of costumes co-designed by James Schuette and Beth Goldenberg, conjure an all too familiar period of last century when power ran amok.
More curious a choice, the set, also by Schuette, featured an interior manor with gigantic red roses painted on the wall (Bogart had apparently told the designer, “I’m seeing flowers.”) Rather than make the world of Macbeth a more normal “domestic environment,” this wall treatment proved bizarre and distracting. A massive back-wall set piece turned the Macbeth’s highland castle into a manor of sorts. (Think Downton Abby as moved into by a tacky nouveau riche family.)
The back wall swiveled to create a curious center stage division that accounted for a disturbing bifurcating of stage pictures. Not only did this bulky structure seem obstructive, but it appeared to get stuck at one point, accounting for a longer than normal pause in the music. (Or am I wrong to think that our Macbeth probably should not have had to lend his efforts to help shove the set into place for the following scene?)
Then there was the problem with a ghost light going on inexplicably on the wall. Spirits can sometimes exhibit a sense of humor as they did just when the line was spoken, “The light fades,” and suddenly that darn light flashed on brightly. What did I tell you about the curse?
In Bogart’s vision, the chorus of Weird Sisters was transformed into a group of char ladies and other working class women of a small European town, maybe set in the 1930’s. When we first see them filing through the auditorium with their cloth coats, hats, scarves, and string bags, they look like ordinary women returning from market. (But why are some of them carrying suitcases?)
I was willing to go with this choice and hoped that it would support Bogart’s idea that “the women” in her show represented the oppressed people of Scotland under tyrannical rule. The problem is the words that they were given to speak, many from the original Shakespearean text are pretty grizzly, not to mention allegedly real, dangerous curses! It wasn’t until scene four of the second act that Bogart’s interpretation snaps fully into focus showing these woman as displaced persons. A worthy stage image, referencing contemporary diasporas, explained the suitcases, but alas, the pay-off came too late.
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My confusion was not helped by the pre-show discussion that at Glimmerglass is usually a welcome introduction to the evening’s work and illuminates both the musical composition and production choices. This talk was given by a company member and Fulbright scholar, who attempted largely to vindicate Lady Macbeth as being a loyal wife and “pure” vessel of love in the tradition of Verdi’s Desdemona and who spoke about the witches in the opera intending to be “beautiful goddesses of destiny.” Neither of these interpretations was supported by the production.
Having expressed my consternation that the conceptual direction created some genuine problems, let’s get to the singing, which was admirable.
Take Lady Macbeth, a role to die for. Melody Moore returns from playing the “pure” Senta in last year’s splendid production of The Flying Dutchman with the creation of an altogether tougher, bigger-than-life, and dead-ahead villainess. From her first entrance in the “letter scene,” she leaps into the aria Veni t’affrete, roiling and boiling fearlessly. Moore gives one hundred per cent, and throughout Act I expresses not an ounce of vacillation or fragility of resolve. The lady summons up the dark powers all on her own without her husband’s urging.
In Indonesia, we would have called her characterization a Mem Basar, a Big-Boss Madam. I could well believe this was a woman who imperiously commanded her manor of upstairs and downstairs servants. With hands that alternated between clenched fists and clawing hands, Moore’s Lady M. is a rapacious bird of prey. Her singing is equally powerful. Not only does she pull out the stops for her character’s high notes, but she excels in the way Verdi moves between descending half-steps and suddenly plunging down into that dark middle sound of a soprano’s voice. Difficult yes, but Moore does it all with a ferocious will.
She was matched in many ways by Eric Owens, a favorite at Glimmerglass Festival, who, in addition to mentoring the young artists’ program, carries the leads in at least one show a season (as he did in The Flying Dutchman last year, also opposite Moore, and the year before in Lost in the Stars, both brilliant and unforgettable roles.)
As Macbeth, he took longer to carve out his take, but that may have been because this audience member, at least, was trying to puzzle out too many other things about the opera. Owens is better at unraveling than plotting as Macbeth. His singing grew more powerfully expressive throughout, and Owens is a master at showing the tension between will to action and the deep instincts of his humanity. In the two duets with Lady Macbeth and especially in his haunting final aria, reinserted from an earlier version by Verdi, he was most stunning, finding an extra gear for a sound that rocked the house and seemed to come from the darkest recesses of the human soul.
In the couple’s relationship, I missed a genuine attraction and physical connection between these two performers. Their interactions were often limited to a passing of the over-used, over-large flashlights between them. Perhaps this was part of Bogart’s interpretation of the power players’ marriage de convenance.
A stand-out performance both in stage presence and sound was Soloman Howard, whose development as a singer and growing ability to take on bigger and more complex roles at Washington National Opera I have followed and delighted in for years. As Banquo, in the duettino with Macbeth, he more than matched the mature Owens in power and size of voice. Even as the sleepwalking ghost, he managed to convey both dignity and other worldliness of his character. The nuance and physically protective empathy he showed for his son in the wonderful aria Come dal ciel precipita was one of the emotional highlights of the evening.
There was some other fine singing by two tenors playing Macduff and Malcolm, Michael Brandenburg and Marco D. Cammarota respectfully. Brandenburg was particularly affecting in Macduff’s discovery of the murder of his children and wife, “Oh, my children.” I was also touched by the performances in the brief scene between Doctor and Lady in Waiting for the simplicity and grounded reality of singers Nathan Milholin and Mithra Mastropierro.
The chorus and orchestra under Joseph Colaneri create a masterful sound. At the end of Act I, the company’s sound in S’ciudi, inferno (“Open wide thy gaping maw of hell”) made me feel the full horror of evil in the world as was realized in the big wars of the twentieth century. This was where Bogart’s concept felt most successful.
Ultimately, however, I would have wished for a production less distracting and with more psychological focus on the growing isolation of Verdi’s main characters. The intensity was too often dissipated by a crowded stage, such as in what was otherwise a powerful sleepwalking aria with Lady M reeling between standing lines of women.
In the Q &A following the show, people were asking about the roses and flashlights. You know when audience members are asking about the wallpaper and the use of flashlights, there’s a problem.
Glimmerglass takes chances, and the Artistic Director Francesca Zambello creates a balanced program of old and new, tried and ground-breaking works. If this conceptual experiment was not to my taste, I know there will be something stunning to bring me around. I’m coming back for more.
Macbeth . Composed by Giuseppe Verdi . Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei . Based on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth . Conducted by Joseph Colaneri . Stage Direction by Anne Bogart . Produced by Glimmerglass Festival . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.