26 May 2007

our old robes sit easier than our new

With the exceptions of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Verdi’s Falstaff, I find most Shakespeare-based operas disappointing, though also always of some interest; but it was with fairly minimal expectations that I went to Macbeth at the National Opera. It turned out to be a pretty enthralling evening, and it helps that, whatever else is mismanaged in our nation’s capital, they start shows at a reasonable hour and have decent public transportation (I think I took two metro trains, wait-time included, and walked several blocks to Ms S’s apartment in the time I would have spent waiting for one BART train to show up at that hour). DC has been having a big Shakespeare festival all year, with some interesting-looking stuff. Staging any of the tragedies and histories, but particularly Macbeth (it’s been several years since I could think of Ronald and Nancy Reagan without hearing in my head “this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen”), in Washington seems almost too obvious, but then it’s not always wise to avoid the obvious. I saw the “Shakespeare in America” exhibit at the Folger Library and was sorry I had missed some of the theater, but Shakespeare is so essential, and everyone so knows that, that this festival seemed like the “Verdi festivals” for the centennial of his death a few years back: pretty much programming as usual. But I’m not going to complain. Too much.

The production used lots of shadows and projections. Sometimes this can look cheap, but in this case I thought it fit in well with the hallucinatory quality of the play. The staging was not period-specific, but much use was made in the projections of stained-glass windows that would appear, break apart, swirl around, and behave in a generally kaleidoscopic manner. Scenes flowed fluidly from one to the other. Last time I saw Verdi’s Macbeth, at SF Opera several years ago, the witches were in black and bounced up and down, suspended to slightly comic effect; here they were all dressed in white (and bearded, as required by bard and composer alike) and carried large white hoops (one was even used as a hula-hoop at one point), fluttering white ribbon-banners of the sort used in rhythmic gymnastics, and large white balls, which they tossed playfully as they circled around; it looked like a moonlit May night wedding party with a huge goat as groom as etched by Goya, and provided a perfect visual counterpoint to the weirdly spritely music Verdi wrote for the witches.

Lado Ataneli was Macbeth and Paoletta Marrocu was his lady, and suitably enough for this couple she was stronger than he was. Ataneli was fine; he sang well and generally acted well, but I wouldn’t call him haunted or driven. His vocal highpoint was towards the end, in the opera’s equivalent of “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” though the final effect would have been finer if he had managed to suppress his pleased smile at the well-deserved applause. Marrocu had a beautiful, steel-like voice and gave kind of a risky mannered performance. Her hands and arms were always assuming positions that were striking and stopped just short of overdone. For the sleepwalking scene she bugged her eyes, stared wildly, and increased her anguished poses in a way that earned her a few giggles from the silly but admiration from those who know why a certain type of eccentric grandeur gets called “operatic.” The rest of the cast was solid; I was particularly impressed by the young tenor Yingxi Zhang as Malcolm.

So on the whole, a slightly surprising success. In fact, after this performance, I felt that for me personally Verdi’s Macbeth is a greater artistic success than his Otello: for Macbeth he matched a weird vivid play with weird vivid music, but he set Othello, a play that ranges from the highest, most-heartbreaking nobility to the strangest, slimiest cistern bottoms, to music purely noble and grand.


Civic Center said...

"Macbeth" over "Otello"? Blasphemy, but interesting.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I know, I know, it's shocking, and one of my minority opinions. I admire Otello but coldly, and part of that might be that I've only seen it live once (last time SF did it) with an inadequate lead -- but the Desdemona was Racette, and I figured if she couldn't convince me the character was interesting, no one could -- and I think Shakespeare's Desdemona is a rich and subtle character. Also, I get tired of the trend of blithely saying that Verdi's is "better" than Shakespeare's; when you ask people what that means, they usually say something about the plot being tighter and smoother, etc., which is exactly why I find it less interesting than Shakespeare's. You go to Shakespeare for mess and confusion (I mean that in a good way), not streamlined stuff. And just to prove I'm not disrespecting Giuseppe, I'd like to point out that I'd much, much rather see Falstaff than Merry Wives.

Civic Center said...

"Otello" without an adequate singer in the lead should be avoided like the plague, and since the role is so damned difficult, there really aren't that many tenors in the world who are capable of taking it on at any one time.

I got lucky and saw Domingo sing it at SFO on two different occasions, including his famous flying-across-the-continent to save San Francisco's opening night stunt. Being a very smart singer, he quickly shelved the role after a couple of years and has proceeded to sing beautifully for another 30. Anyway, if you ever see the opera done live with the proper cast, its high regard won't be such a mystery. It's an amazing piece.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I see what people admire in it -- I have several recordings, though unfortunately I never saw Domingo live in the role. But I can't help comparing it to Shakespeare, and to me Othello is just a richer stranger deeper work than Otello. In fact, in some ways I prefer Rossini's version exactly because it's different enough so that I can avoid direct comparison.