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Seen and Heard International Opera Review


Verdi: Macbeth Seattle Opera, soloists, cond. Nicola Luisotti, dir. Bernard Uzan, designer Robert Israel, Marion Olive Hall, Seattle, 10.05.2006 (BJ)

Rather like the opera itself–a blend of genuine Verdian genius with passages of damaging banality–Seattle Opera’s season-ending production of Macbeth offered much to enjoy but also a good deal that militated against complete success. On the whole, the pluses were more on the musical than on the dramatic side.

First and foremost was the inspiring and technically accomplished conducting of Nicola Luisotti, who made his company debut in a way that must surely make an early return engagement a high priority for general director Speight Jenkins. I have rarely heard this particular Verdi score played with so vivid and electrifying a sense of alternating urgency and grace.

That the conductor comes first to mind is perhaps a warning sign in an opera that depends so much on the performance of the two central roles. As Macbeth, Gordon Hawkins (whom, like Luisotti, I was hearing for the first time) was indeed excellent, deploying a rich baritone with elegance and force, and presenting a convincing portrait of a man whose scruples are overborne by his own, and more particularly his wife’s, ambition. The Lady Macbeth, Andrea Gruber, possesses a soprano voice of considerable beauty and commanding power. Unfortunately, however, while her piano line was truly seductive, louder passages were vitiated by a wobble so wide you could have driven a truck through it.

She was also hamstrung in dramatic terms by an extremely narrow and cliché-ridden range of gesture–and this brings me to the topic of the stage direction. Bernard Uzan seemed not to have decided quite what visual idiom he wanted to bring to the work. We were presented with what amounted to a mélange of modern, or even post-modern, stylization with moments of naturalism and a generous helping of old-fashioned posturing. It was Lady Macbeth who most strikingly represented this last element: time and again, she simply stood facing the audience with both arms extended sideways, and while this might have been effective enough just once or twice, excessive repetition ended as usual subject to the law of diminishing returns.


Modernity, on the other hand, also conflicting somewhat with Robert Israel’s relatively traditional costumes, was the principal characteristic of his set. The entire opera was played within and in front of a large white box of abstract design. This had its virtues, in concentrating the viewer’s attention on the action rather than its setting. But there were oddities here, too. Perhaps I am stupid, but I failed to see the purpose of the frequently floodlit pile of rocks at the front of stage-left, which looked as if it was going to tell us something but never did. Then there was the Macbeths’ bedroom, which was furnished exclusively with a four-poster bed, on whose ample cushions the lady of the house did a good deal of lolling, and a scattering of more of the ubiquitous rocks. Together with lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, Uzan and Israel devised some highly telling effects. But one touch–the gradual suffusion of a grid on the back wall with dripping blood–seemed to have strayed in from Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, and its symbolism was prosaically obvious. As to the witches, the significance of dressing half of them funereally and the other half in what looked like wedding-gowns, like that of the rock-pile, escaped me.

More positive, for me, was the contribution of the supporting cast, which included strongly acted and sung portrayals of Banquo, Macduff, and Malcolm by Burak Bilgili, Joseph Calleja, and the sumptuously named Leodigario del Rosario. The others too, along with the company’s fine chorus (trained by Beth Kirchhoff), did their parts well. In particular, David Korn, a young male soprano whom I had occasion recently to admire both in the company’s Young Artists program production of The Turn of the Screw and in Hans Krása’s Brundibár, made an affecting Second Apparition.

Despite all my quibbles, the opera made a considerable visceral impact, serving to conclude a season in which the three-fifths of the productions I have been here to witness–Chris Alexander’s sparkling Fledermaus, Jonathan Miller’s thought-provoking if occasionally perverse Così, and this Macbeth–have given much more pleasure and artistic satisfaction than disappointment. Mr. Jenkins has fashioned a company of high artistic ambition and sterling achievement, and next season’s line-up of Rosenkavalier, L’italiana in Algeri, Don Giovanni, Giulio Cesare in Egitto, and La bohème offers an enticing prospect that I look forward to reviewing in these columns.

Bernard Jacobson




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)