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Friday, December 9, 2016

Opera Review: Blood and Chocolate

LoftOpera mounts Verdi's Macbeth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Uneasy lies the head: Macbeth (Craig Irvin, center)
sees Banco's ghost in Verdi's Macbeth. 
Photo by Robert Altman © 2016 LoftOpera.
LoftOpera, that entertaining and ambitious company co-founded by step-siblings Brianna Maury and Daniel Ellis-Ferris has capped their 2016 season with their first grand opera, a new production of Verdi's Macbeth. For this show, Loft made an inspired if chilly choice, a long, high, recently renovated industrial space located in the heart of Brooklyn Navy Yard. The building will soon to be home to the Mast Brothers' new chocolate factory.

Verdi wrote Macbeth in 1847. His tenth opera, it is a lean adaptation of Shakespeare's Scottish tragedy. It was presented here in its bare-bones original form without the composer's revisions of 1865. The opera has two demanding leading roles, battle sequences, witchy rituals and supernatural effect effects, including ghosts, an ambulatory forest and the famous dagger of the mind. It also requires a large male and female chorus, both to play the comprimario parts like the Doctor, Lady Macbeth's handmaiden and the assassins, as well as the eighteen witches that Verdi wrote for. (LoftOpera, ever budget-conscious, settled for a dozen.)

The warehouse, with its high, vaulted ceilings, balconies, staircases and (surprisingly) good acoustics proved to be well suited to depict Verdi's version of Shakespeare's Scotland. Director Laine Rettmer moved the show to a vague modern period, costumed the characters in fashionable duds from JackThreads and used the huge space to solve some of the practical effects, back-lighting singers at some distance from the stage to create, huge shadows, hiding the ingredients for the witches' brew within the audience, and best of all, using crumbling plaster "knives" for the aforementioned dagger. All to the good.

The company continues to have good luck with singers. Craig Irvin was a strapping presence as Macbeth, throwing himself into the part and librettist Francesco Piave's translations of Shakespeare's soliloquies. He threw himself into madness at the appearance of Banco in the banquet scene, staring wild-eyed and even jumping onto an audience bench and towering over a surprised New York Times critic. This was a compelling performance by a singer on his way to great things. He sang the famous final speech pushing against a giant boulder prop, a despairing, living Sisyphus.

Soprano Elizabeth Baldwin brought an earthy presence to Lady Macbeth, appearing with Mr. Irvin in a staged Act I prelude that depicted the royal couple as loving parents who had lost a child. She unsheathed a white-hot soprano in the Letter Scene, wielding her voice with the ruthlessness of an assassin's knife. Ms. Baldwin sang this very demanding music with total focus, making the high notes ring with power and her mounting, bloodthirsty madness both terrifying and real. The sleepwalk was frightening, especially as she moved through the vast, darkened space, the vaults of the warehouse suggesting a cold and drafty castle. She was also given an onstage death scene something omitted from both the play and the opera's libretto.

Kevin Thompson sang Banco with a firm, resonant bass. His lovely, dark-edged sound and imposing presence made this writer wish that the part were longer. He received a warm applause for his little aria to Fleance in Act Two. In the key role of Macduff, tenor Peter Scott Drackley showed a bright sound with a welcome "ping" in the upper register. He proved convincing as the survivor of tragedy who goes on to lead the Scots people to freedom. As he and Mr. Irvin battled on one of the staircases, the audience sat enraptured, reminded that while Macbeth is sometimes eclipsed by later operas, it remains a riveting setting of this play.

The orchestra contended with cold temperatures, playing this colorful score with gusto under the baton of Sean Kelly. The chorus had much to do here, portraying the witches as terrifying goth girls gone wrong, and the assassins as inglorious bastards. Of these minor singers, bass Kofi Hayford stood out as the lead assassin and one of the Apparitions,  singing with burly tone. The most moving part of the whole show was the Act IV chorus "Patria oppressa," where the much put-upon Scots bemoan their fate and decide to battle a ruler they definitely don't want in power. For New York artists, opera singers and music lovers, who gathered in a cold warehouse to celebrate both Shakespeare and Verdi, these words had more meaning than they usually do.

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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.