The opera "Macbeth," generally attributed to Verdi, is Donizetti
exemplified: bel canto melodies, sweeping, obsessive rhythms, Donizetti
all the way. (Exception: those undeniably Verdian marches that sound
like both the Italian and the Brazilian National Anthems - as if you
could tell 'em apart.)
The "Donizetti Sound" is one of the glories of West Bay Opera's new
production, opened Friday night, conducted by Sara Jobin, who has marshaled
rural forces to produce urban excellence. Jobin - who will soon become
a "house conductor" either at the San Francisco Opera or somewhere else
with an ingenious management - brought the best out of a small, fine
orchestra and a small, often ragged chorus to present a fluent, cohesive,
enjoyable performance, enabling the singers to rule.
Rule they did, in different ways. Jason Detwiler, in spite of his youth,
has been heard in the South Bay in many roles, but nothing prepared me
for his Macbeth. He sang simply, quietly, naturally, with a warm, velvety
voice. Top and bottom were good, but in the middle voice, Detweiler was
extraordinary, bringing up blessed memories of Herman Prey singing
"Pierrot's Tanzlied" from "Die Tote Stadt."
Lady Macbeth came from another neighborhood - the rocks of the Valkyries,
her little-known first name (no, it's not "Lady") fitting the voice:
Gruach as a Wagnerian soprano. Helena Janzen is a big-voiced Swede, who
made up for all of Detwiler's subtlety. Thanks to stage director Daniel
Helfgot, Janzen got to sing Lady Macbeth's two great arias in a prone
position, starting off as Tosca, but ending up on her back. Ending
terminally, in fact, as Helfgot directed Macbeth to force some poison
down her throat to conclude the sleepwalking scene, specifics not provided
by Shakespeare, but what the hey?!
So, on her side, face down, or on her back, Janzen still blew the house
down, with a strong, broad voice and manic, jerky energy. Her low
register doesn't quite measure up to the rest of her impressive performance.
Adam Flowers' Macduff and Kevin Nakatani's Banquo were both well sung.
The production is surprisingly good musically, and certainly is surprising
dramatically. Helfgot never met an idea he didn't like. From his fertile
mind came scenes such as Lady Macbeth mounting men who stretch out on
their back helplessly, the devilish Gruach emptying her glass on the
head of Macbeth, the witches wearing sunglasses, most of the soloists
sporting a crown, whatever their rank, including - confusingly - Macbeth,
even at the beginning when the crown is several murders away. On the
plus side: a pithy understatement, placing the action in the program at
"A land in political turmoil."
A final "kick" is a risky thing in opera, meaningful, distracting -
or both. A perfect example for the latter: Gotz Friedrich's otherwise
excellent "Lohengrin" in Bayreuth, turning into turmoil and mush in the
final minute with the arrival of Godfrey... as an R2D2 robot. Edo de
Waart, in his Bayreuth debut, and the audience were amazed and shocked,
discussed the puzzle then and there, paying no attention to the music.
Helfgot's "Macbeth" finale is more subtle and certainly thought-provoking:
Malcolm's coronation ends with a visual deja vu. As Lady Macbeth thrust
a knife into Macbeth's hand at the beginning, a woman in red (Lady
Macbeth's uniform throughout) hands a knife to Malcolm as the curtain
falls. It could have been Gruach's ghost or a symbolic chacter standing
for the idea of the Killer Wife.
Jean-Francois Revon's sets on the postage-sized stage are covered over
by Chad Bonaker's busy lighting, and the chorus, in Richard W. Battle's
slick fake-leather (or opulent vinyl) outfits that serve witches, courtiers
and revolting peasants alike... a useful device as the same handful of
chorus member does all the work. No need to change costumes, just
accessorize them appropriately.
The area has done well with "Macbeth" - since the S.F. Opera's grand
Howland-Pizzi production in 1994, Berkeley Opera (featuring Ricardo
Herrera) and Pocket Opera (Marcelle Dronkers) presented small-scale,
memorable performances of it.
Here's the real story of Macbeth, something you won't find in
Shakespeare or Verdi: Duncan was killed in 1040 while attempting to bring
the rebellious Macbeth to heel. Macbeth then became king. Gruach's
royal connection was fairly well established: she was the granddaughter
of either Kenneth II or III and daughter of Boete who may have been
recognized as tanaise to Malcolm II. Macbeth remained king for 17
sometimes turbulent years [not just for one act!]; he made a pilgrimage
to Rome in 1050. (Attention Opera Quiz: What's a common element in
"Macbeth" and "Tannhauser"?) Malcolm III, son of Duncan, and representing
one of the three rival royal lines, finally defeated and killed Macbeth
at Lumphanan in 1057.
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