Murderously magnificent: Soprano shines in Lyric Opera’s sharp, stylish “Macbeth”

October 03, 2010

Thomas Hampson and Nadja Michael in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's "Macbeth." Photo: Robert Kusel

When one thinks of festive light-hearted works to ring in a new opera season, Macbeth isn’t exactly the first option to come to mind.

Yet it was Giuseppe Verdi’s dark, brooding adaptation of Shakespeare’s tale of the homicidal couple whose relentless ambitions lead to murder, insanity and death, which opened the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s season Friday night in a new production starring Thomas Hampson.

While there are earlier operas in the Verdi canon—Nabucco, I Lombardi, Ernani, even I due Foscari—that display glimpses of the masterworks to come, it is with Macbeth that Verdi’s genius is first shown in full flower.

In addition to the skillful editorial paring of Shakespeare’s play to a tight four acts, amid the rousing choruses and individual showpieces, Verdi’s opera presents a degree of psychological penetration and innovative writing for orchestra that consistently enhance and deepen Shakespeare’s gaunt tragedy without diluting its essence.

Much attention in recent weeks has focused on this new production marking the opera directorial debut of Barbara Gaines, founder and artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater. And while Gaines’ stylish, imaginative staging was nearly a complete success, the clear star of the evening was Nadja Michael, who made a spectacular Lyric Opera debut as Lady Macbeth.

The slender German singer possesses a big gleaming soprano, evenly produced from top to bottom, and able to encompass the considerable vocal demands of this role. She served notice with an imposing rendering of her opening cavatina, flinging out powerful top notes in Vieni t’affretta, while displaying nimble agility in the ensuing cabaletta, Or tutti sorge.

Michael’s performance increased in power and intensity with her lilting, desperate Brindisi and in the dramatic Act 3 duet. Her climactic sleepwalking scene was as beautiful sung as it was sensitively acted, Michael bringing cinematic detailing to the villainess’s disordered mind and encroaching insanity.

Michael’s sexy villainess commanded the stage, stalking like a caged lioness, drinking it up in the banquet scene and impatiently grabbing the dagger from Macbeth to finish off King Duncan. The blonde soprano’s athletic sinewy figure looked staggering in Virgil C. Johnson slit-to-there skintight gowns (“What a body!” exclaimed an admiring female patron opening night). No wonder Michael’s Lady Macbeth is so able to wrap her weak, vacillating husband around those long fingers.

Macbeth has long been a favored role for Hampson, and the popular singer’s experience showed in a superbly sung performance. Hampson’s lyric baritone is rather light for this role, and some of the big moments were undeniably wanting in power and Italianate ballast.

Still, Hampson, one of our most intelligent singers, more than made up the balance with his dramatic commitment and lieder-like attention to the text. He sang with dedication throughout, and seemed to find an extra bit of intensity after intermission, matching Michael’s heat in Ora di morte and bringing keen dramatic edge, despair and a guilt-ridden regret to Pieta, rispetto, amore.

After experiencing director Francisco Negrin’s baffling, muddled staging of Werther in San Francisco five days earlier—a Lyric Opera coproduction—I was wary of another revisionist directorial take. But Barbara Gaines’ operatic debut served up an imaginative and visually striking show that was largely traditional with a few flashy modern flourishes.

You had to love the opening scene in the withes camp, with a pair of them flying high above the Lyric stage. Gaines’ direction had several inspired touches like the assassins’ very physical challenges in their Act 2 chorus, showing the families of Macbeth’s victims and thereby serving to humanize them, and bringing Duncan’s bloodied corpse on stage as a kind of Christ figure. Gaines also had the principals engage in natural movement as in the theater, skillfully avoiding the usual stiff grand opera gestures.

Less successful was the rather attenuated idea of the witches controlling the action with illuminated magic globes as a kind of beneficent Wiccan lodge–even doing good as when Banquo’s son is magically whisked away to safety after his father is murdered.

Still, this was an outstanding directorial debut. Rarely will one experience a director in their first opera assignment showing such meticulous care in matching the stage action and scene transitions to Verdi’s music, as does Gaines.

The rest of the cast was equally impressive. Stefan Kocan, making his company debut, was a terrific Banquo. The Slovakian bass possesses the requisite subterranean voice, and delivered an imposing and resonant Come dal ciel precipita.

The role of Macduff makes a rather belated appearance in Verdi’s opera, but Leonardo Capalbo did not disappoint. The New York tenor made a worthy and tough hero—here dispatching Macbeth by cutting his throat—and Capalbo rose to his big moment in fine style with an impassioned rendering of Ah! la paterna mano.

Konstantin Stepanov was serviceable in the small role of Malcolm. Sam Handley displayed versatility in a quartet of roles and Ryan Center members Carter Scott, Amanda Majeski and Evan Boyer fulfilled their small parts admirably.

James Noone’s sets moved fluently and found a stylish melding of tradition and modernism. The gray walls evoked a Scottish stone fortress while also suggesting the gently curved steel parabolas of Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion and Walt Disney Hall. The small crescent for the Macbeths’ chambers was a nice touch, suggesting their cramped morality as well as the claustrophobic space.

Apart from the white suits for the ensemble in the final scene, which resembled an overserved surgeons’ convention, Johnson’s costumes were clever and imaginative— from the sleek mankiller gowns for Michael to the gladrag animal skins for the witches. He also managed to find the right timeless quality with the armored outfits for Macbeth and the nobles, without falling into Star Wars costuming cliches.

Palumbo conducted very well, drawing refined, often brilliant playing from the Lyric Opera Orchestra. If the Italian conductor did not always highlight Verdi’s imaginative instrumental writing clearly, Palumbo supported his singers sensitively and put across the rousing ensemble scenes with maximum impact.

In his final season with the Lyric Opera, chorusmaster Donald Nally elicited robust and characterful ensemble singing, with the women making a wonderfully snarly band of witches and the men an imposing gang of assassins.

Verdi’s Macbeth runs through Oct. 30.; 312-332-2244.

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