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Friday, December 12, 2014

Opera Review: Double Toil, Double Trouble

MSM Opera unearths Ernest Bloch's Macbeth
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Uneasy lies the head...Composer Ernst Bloch, creator of Macbeth. 
Photo © G. Schirmer, image alteration by the author. 
The ever-searching and ever curious musical minds that program operas for graduate level performers at Manhattan School of Music have really dug up a doozy. On Wednesday night, MSM presented artistic director Dona D. Vaughan's staging of Macbeth, an innovative adaptation of Shakespeare's Scottish tragedy by composer Ernst Bloch. This was the New York premiere of the opera in its original French text, and the first staging of the Bloch Macbeth in New York since 1973.

It was well worth the wait.

Bloch (1885-1959) belongs to the early 20th century, a time that saw the dying embers of Romanticism quenched by the French impressionists and the twelve-tone experiments of the Second Viennese School. His only opera, Macbeth (which premiered on the Paris stage in 1910) owes something to Wagner, Debussy and Mussorgsky, bringing these disparate elements together in a perfect storm over the Scottish heath. The libretto (by Edmond Fleg) follows Shakespeare closely although curious plot elements (such as the circumstance of Macduff's birth) fall by the wayside.

From the entry of the three witches (recalling the eerie, portentous chords that accompany the Norns in Götterdämmerung) to the giant, surging chorus that accompanies the discovery of Duncan's corpse, this Macbeth stands on its own. Its emphasis on the title role (and not his good wife) is closer than the Verdi opera to Shakespeare's text. Musically, it stands completely on its own. Conductor Laurent Pillot put less emphasis on dramatic declamation and more on keeping the action of this fast-paced tragedy moving at a hellish speed.

The strong cast was led by baritone Robert Mellon in the title role, who had a few harsh moments early but warmed up as he took to his bloody task. Mr. Mellon was helped by a handsome stage presence, a facade that shattered beautifully as the bloody corpse of Banquo (James Ludlum, in a much smaller role than in the Verdi opera) popped up from amidst the wine goblets. In the closing act, Mr. Mellon fought for vocal grandeur against the thick orchestral palette (triple winds, quadruple horns) until slain by a vengeance-driven Macduff.

In this version, Lady Macbeth is not a tour de force role. However, soprano Maria Natale) gave an memorable and nuanced performance. In her first scene with Macbeth (begun not while reading a letter but as a conversation in the couple's nuptial bed) she molded the French text with her sharp-edged instrument, with the roiling of the orchestra beneath indicating her true and monstrous nature.  Following Duncan's murder, she made the Queen into a cold, calculating figure, trapped in a loveless marriage.

In the banquet scene, the royal couple went gleefully over-the-top. In the middle of the King giving the toast to his fellow and politically allied Scotsmen, poor Macbeth started freaking out in front of his guests. Once they departed in horror, his good wife wasted no time propositioning her husband on the banquet table (an athletic feat to be sure!) only to glower in frustration afterward. It was a perfect illustration of the barren and unnatural nature of the Macbeths' home life--and very Shakespearean.

In orbit around this unhappy couple was a small solar system of promising voices. Xiaomeng Zhang was Macduff, torn by tragedy and driven by vengeance, presented as a mirror-image to Macbeth. Britney Nickell was his wife, a much larger part here: the onstage murder of Lady Macduff and her two sons was the opera's most sickening moment. (With her plush soprano, Ms. Nickell made one grateful that Bloch decided to expand the role.) Spurring the action on were the three witches Catherine Sqindle, Lisa Narone, Niru Liu) whose onstage costuming let them form a composite image of a strange, gnarled tree whose appearance signaled doom for all concerned.

The last scenes of the opera opened with the sleep-walking scene (shorter than in that other opera) was nonetheless a probing psychological portrait. Ms. Natale sang with power and precision, as shifting chords captured the elusiveness and illusion of the blood staining her hands. This was followed by the enthusiastic fight between Macbeth and Macduff, a bit of swordplay that resulted in the usurper's quick and curiously un-poetic death As Macduff set the circlet on Malcom's head, the witches suddenly reappeared. No matter who wears the crown, the forces of hell will prevail.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.