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Minnesota Opera

In Review Macbeth Minnesota lg 414
Grimsley and Harris, the Macbeths in St. Paul
© Michal Daniel for Minnesota Opera 2014

Verdi's Macbeth, never what one would call a cheerful, lighthearted evening in the theater, took on an extra measure of gloom and despair in Joel Ivany's production for Minnesota Opera, the third offering in what has so far been a winning fifty-first season for this company.

We first encounter Macbeth (Greer Grimsley) and Banquo (Alfred Walker) on a battlefield strewn with dead bodies, on which the weird sisters, dressed like crows with gas masks growing from their heads, are feasting. It's an ugly scene: Banquo stabs an enemy soldier and nonchalantly walks on. But then it's an ugly culture that Ivany and his designer, Camellia Koo, present to us — a dour, violent society full of dark deeds at the top and, embodied in the fervently sung choral lament at the start of Act IV, the war-torn peasant class at the bottom. In such a society, with its crumbling, concrete buildings and claustrophobic enclosures (no particular time or place is suggested), it's not so surprising that Macbeth and his Lady might be prompted to murder their way to the throne. They've probably done evil things before, and in a more just society they would have a police record a mile long, At the end, when they're defeated, the victory chorus led by Malcolm and Macduff carries a hint of weariness: despite a welcome change in administration, things aren't likely to improve.

Grimsley, the charismatic Macbeth, shares the spotlight with Brenda Harris, his impressively ruthless Lady. Both artists have sung their roles before, and neither is a stranger to this company. Both are strong actors. As the evening progressed, Grimsley traced a clear and believable line from furtive ambition to homicidal frenzy and finally, in the battle scene, to a desperate grasp at self-preservation that rose to almost heroic scale. Except for brief moments of wayward pitch right at the start on opening night (Jan. 25), Grimsley used his prodigious bass-baritone to full effect in the climaxes while investing the more introspective moments with a grandly lyric, dark-velvet sound. Harris, for her part, was an intense, combative, unyielding queen-to-be, which gave her sleepwalking scene, played with a subdued dreaminess — with none of the fevered movements that sopranos usually give it — such poignancy. Her tone showed patches of dryness, but Harris dealt easily and accurately with the part's coloratura demands, delivering honest-to-goodness trills in the banquet scene and ending the sleepwalking scene with an immaculate high D-flat.

Walker brought a noble, resonant sound to the role of Banquo, and Harold Meers gave ardent expression to Macduff's Act IV aria. And despite a few uncoordinated moments between the excellent chorus and orchestra in Act I, Michael Christie conducted with splendid brio and welcome crispness.

A few of Ivany's ideas didn't work, such as having a simulation of Banquo's head painted silver and displayed on a platter during the banquet scene as if it were the head of John the Baptist. Generally, though, Ivany's visuals carried a ring of truth, and though he couldn't make the Witches believable — no director can do that — he drew lively, limber performances from them. As a provocative touch, he had some of them appear in the background in scenes where we don't expect them, suggesting that the Witches are dictating the events of the story, rather than simply predicting them, but, for better or worse, he didn't follow through on this idea. Sean Nieuwenhuis designed the atmospheric projections and Jason Hand the lighting. Koo also conceived the striking costumes, black leather being the dominant motif. spacer


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