Chicago Opera Theater’s worthy revival of Bloch’s “Macbeth” undone by unkind cuts

September 15, 2014
Nmon Ford and Suzan Hanson in Ernest Bloch's "Macbeth" at Chicago Opera Theater. Photo Keith Ian Polakoff

Nmon Ford and Suzan Hanson in Ernest Bloch’s “Macbeth” at Chicago Opera Theater. Photo Keith Ian Polakoff

The Andreas Mitisek era at Chicago Opera Theater has been one of great hopes and jarring lapses. There have been successes (Maria de Buenos Aires, Orpheus), dubious repertory (Queenie Pie), and abysmal stagings (Joan of Arc). Often when one component is well-judged, something else brings the evening crashing down to earth.

COT’s production of Ernest Bloch’s Macbeth, which opened Saturday at the Harris Theater, was another one of those mixed nights with an excellent, neglected work revived only to be undone by ho-hum singing, intrusive live video and a laissez-faire approach to the score.

Bloch’s Macbeth is exactly the kind of repertory that COT should be doing. The Swiss-American composer is known today more for a handful of late works inspired by his Jewish heritage (Baal Shem, Schelomo, Suite Hebraique). Yet as a young man, Bloch wrote Macbeth, his only opera, while living in Paris, a work which sank into oblivion after its premiere.

While not in any danger of displacing Verdi’s opera in the public arena, Bloch’s Macbeth is an impressive, well crafted and darkly lyrical work that deserves more than its current near-total neglect. His early music is completely different from Bloch’s better-known febrile, ethnically flavored works. In its restless, flowing and dream-like style, his Macbeth is closer to Debussy’s Pelleas as well as echoing elements of Faure and Magnard. The long musical paragraphs and generous use of leitmotivs likewise show a clear debt to Wagner.

It’s unfortunate that COT elected to perform Bloch’s Macbeth in English. Yes, it’s the language of the Shakespeare play, and Bloch prepared his own translation, which was used here. Yet the opera is French through and through, and a certain idiomatic flavor was undeniably lost as a result.

More grievous was the cavalier attitude taken toward Bloch’s score. Though not mentioned anywhere in the program or press material, over a half-hour was chopped out of the opera, including entire characters and scenes—most conspicuously a romantic interlude between Macduff and Lady Macduff, which provides a welcome respite from the evil Macbeths. Why the rush to jam a potted version into a single intermission-less span of less than two hours? If you’re going to revive a rarity such as this, at least treat the score with the musical integrity it deserves.

Mitisek’s production on the whole created a visually striking staging out of cost-effective means, aided greatly by David Bradke’s painterly lighting. The unit set is a banquet table surrounded by large flowing white curtains on which live video (designed by Sean T. Cawelti) is projected. Well rehearsed and intermittently effective, the vid succeeded in bringing the action up close and personal. Yet over the long haul, the constant onslaught of massive images proved distracting and intrusive, miniaturizing the singers and pushing the darkly lit stage action even more into the shadows. (The video mercifully went out for a few seconds during a moment of rough sexual play by the Macbeths on the table, as if in protest.)

In the current COT tradition, the cast was solid without being especially inspired. Nmon Ford brought a regal presence and middleweight baritone to Macbeth. His burry timbre is rather straitened in color and expression, and his performance would have benefited from greater emotional intensity. Suzan Hanson—Mitisek’s regular soprano— brought greater dramatic fire and imposing top notes along with a persistent wobble to the role of Lady Macbeth.

Even with the role of Macduff greatly reduced in this production, Paul Scholten made a sure impact, also doubling as an assassin. Joe Shadday proved capable in multiple roles, though his light tenor was unevenly projected. The three Witches (Brittany Loewen, Helen Wyatt and Cassidy Smith) sang variably but deftly handled their miniature cams.

Apart from acquiescing in the gutting of Bloch’s score, conductor Francesco Milioto did a superb job in the pit, leading a vital and atmospheric performance and drawing fine playing from the Chicago Sinfonietta. Placed unseen on either side at the front of the house, the Apollo Chorus, led by Stephen Alltop, brought formidable power and weight to the triumphant final scene.

Macbeth runs through September 21.

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