Big Choruses Bolster Leads In ‘Macbeth’

Big Choruses Bolster Leads In ‘Macbeth’

Review by PAT THORPE for

Soloman Howard as Banquo, Melody Moore as Lady Macbeth and Eric Owens as Macbeth in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2015 production of "Macbeth." (Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival)
Soloman Howard as Banquo, Melody Moore as Lady Macbeth and Eric Owens as Macbeth in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2015 production of “Macbeth.” (Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival)

I prefer Shakespeare to all dramatists,” wrote Guiseppe Verdi. Verdi knew the plays intimately, and that knowledge suffuses three of his greatest operas.

“Macbeth,” Verdi’s 10th opera, was his first attempt to translate Shakespeare and a success from its earliest days. The opera is remarkably true to the original, but one of the most dramatic changes is evident even before the curtain goes up on this new production by the Glimmerglass Festival: Verdi departed from the Bard by expanding the three witches into a large chorus.

Director Anne Bogart goes further: instead of bearded crones, these are simply women, dowdy, prim housekeepers, maids, chars, who escape a downtrodden existence with gossip, suggestion and malicious mischief. They sedately epitomize the banality of evil. Their suggestion to Macbeth that he could become King of Scotland sets the slaughter in motion.

This new production takes place in the 1930s, the default setting for the rise of bloody despots but effective here, with a clever stage device that swings from elite elegance to a multipurpose fascist façade.
Eric Owens is making his role debut as Macbeth and he is superb, physically and vocally imposing as the heroic general with an uncertain moral compass. Melody Moore, a spectacular Lady Macbeth, more than matches her spouse, overcoming his qualms with nerves of steel and a voice of furious power throughout a remarkable range. Bass Soloman Howard is short-lived as Banquo, but has a dramatic aria heavy with foreboding.

Verdi made abundant use of the chorus, particularly in his early operas, and “Macbeth” is replete with choral opportunities, beautifully sung by the Glimmerglass Young Artists. Besides the witches, there are several soldiers’ choruses and an assassins’ chorus – “Tremble, Banquo!” – that might almost be a parody if it were not genuinely sinister. The chorus of refugees, “Oppressed Country,” near the end is heartbreaking as Scots try to flee the violence, a scene that might have been ripped from today’s headlines. These choruses illuminate one of Shakespeare’s darkest dramas, bringing color to a tragedy that can be all too monochromatic.

Conductor Joseph Colaneri has a special rapport with Verdi and manages the sizeable musical forces to perfection; when he is on the podium, the orchestra is at its best. The musicians perform with utter confidence, making possible vigorous tempi that will make you impatient with other interpretations and keep the opera hurtling to its tragic finale.

Late in the second act, our hopes are raised by Malcolm (Marco D. Cammarota), the true heir to the throne, and Macduff (Michael Brandenburg), whose family has been killed by Macbeth. These fine tenors rally the troops and overcome the tyrant, who has one final aria before his death. The opera, like the play, ends with a somber Hymn of Victory.

Verdi wrote, “This tragedy is one of the greatest creations of man…if we can’t make something great out of it, let us at least try to do something out of the ordinary.” In that, Verdi and Glimmerglass have succeeded.