|The brilliant cast of Ernest Bloch's Macbeth at Manhattan School of Music
The opening scene of the opera presented the three witches on a windswept heath in Scotland. The eerie music gives aural representation to the visual image of three very scary creatures cavorting on a battlefield of fallen soldiers--plucking out eyes, cutting off hands and drinking blood. World class director Dona D. Vaughn has made sure that we get the message right from the start. Wars are born and bred in hell and only hellish creatures reap the "benefits".
The witches were fantastically costumed by Daniel James Cole with Hair and Makeup Designer Anne Ford-Coates' contributions; branches sprouted from their heads and the herky-jerky movements of their fingers became twiglike. The three singers portraying the witches gave evidence of intense instruction in movement as well as voice; they were soprano Anna Dugan, mezzo Minyoung Kim, and mezzo Michelle Siemens. Their fine work established the mood for a riveting evening of musical drama.
Ernest Bloch's Macbeth premiered in Paris at the Opéra-Comique in 1910 with a libretto by Edmond Fleg, who adapted it from the Shakespeare play. It hews fairly closely to the original play with liberties taken for musical and dramatic purposes. Comparisons with Verdi's opera are unnecessary. This is a very different work and stands on its own as an underappreciated masterpiece. Thankfully, it was sung in the original French--for the first time in the USA. The phrasing and inflection of the language and music were admirably consonant; we would not wish to hear this opera in English!
There are no longueurs here; the work moved along at a rapid pace sustained by the propulsive music which seems to serve the psychology of the characters. By turns mysterious, alarming, seductive, cacophonous, or introspective it gave us insight into the thoughts and perceptions of the characters. Fortunately, the French conductor Laurent Pillot was on hand to guide the fine players of the Manhattan School of Music Orchestra. The winds were particularly on point. The textures and harmonies of Bloch's music are compelling. At times we heard echoes of Debussy; at other times we thought of Richard Strauss. The interludes between scenes were astonishingly beautiful.
The singing was superb all around with French diction so accurate that we were actually able to understand the words. In the titular role we were impressed by baritone Robert Mellon whose full-throated voice sailed over the orchestra. He portrayed the conflicted Thane with subtle nuance and scored high in believability. His hallucinatory aria when he sees the dagger was masterful.
As he triumphed over his remorse and shame, Lady Macbeth, originally psychopathic in her lack of guilt, took on the mantle of remorse. Soprano Alaysha Fox sang the role well and was convincing both in her seductiveness in Act I and her aria in Act III ("Out out damned spot").
As King Duncan, tenor Elliott Paige (well remembered from his starring role in Orlando Paladino last year) was as effective in a serious role as he was in a comedic one. We loved the way his character's benevolence and goodwill were reflected in the orchestral accompaniment. Sadly, he got killed off in Act I!
As his son Malcolm, the fine tenor Carlton Moe was crowned at the end with great rejoicing from the excellent chorus. Kudos to Miriam Charney Chorus Master!
Macduff, leader of the opposition, was sung by the excellent baritone Xiaomeng Zhang who lived up to the promise made by his earlier appearances. As his poor wife, soprano Alexis Aimé made a fine appearance with mezzo Kendra Broom convincing as her cocky son. It was heartrending to witness their senseless murder.
All other roles were well sung, including James Ludlam as Banquo, Xiaoming Tian as a herald, and Joshua Arky as an old man. Most of the singers were graduate level students working on their Masters of Music but Mr. Mellon is a graduate and now a guest artist.
It is no small feat to get everything working together and last night was a perfect example of musicianship and stagecraft joining forces to produce a work that kept us riveted for a few hours. If the Metropolitan Opera could put together a production like this in which the intentions of the composer and librettist were so honored, we might still be a subscriber.
There is a matinee performance on Sunday. A word to the wise....
© meche kroop