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In Review > North America

Macbeth

NEW YORK CITY
Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater
12/14/14

In Review MSM Macbeth lg 315
Natale and Mellon, stars of Bloch’s Macbeth at MSM
© Carol Rosegg 2015

Ernest Bloch’s Macbeth,based closely on Shakespeare’s play, is a neglected opera, first produced in Paris in 1910 and not seen in the U.S. until 1957 (in English translation). This past December, its original French-language version received its belated U.S. premiere in a dynamic production at the Manhattan School of Music (seen Dec. 14, the third and final performance of the run) that made a strong case for the work.

It’s obvious from the first bars of the prelude that Bloch is a natural opera composer, able to conjure atmosphere instantly. He promptly proves that he can maintain suspense and build action in compelling steps. His librettist, Edmond Fleg, serves those storytelling skills with a text that follows and sagely compresses Shakespeare’s plot, while retaining echoes of the famous soliloquies (“Is this a dagger that I see before me?” or “Out, out, brief candle”). But despite those key phrases and an impressive use of the orchestra that shows the influence of both Wagner and Debussy, Bloch and Fleg are more concerned with action than with poetry.

In Bloch’s case, fidelity to Shakespeare can seem confining. Verdi’s more freewheeling Macbeth, in contrast, subjects Shakespeare’s plot to a rich vocal display that provides a counterpart to the Elizabethan verbal pyrotechnics. In Bloch’s opera, the hero’s musical language is severe and far more explosive than lyrical. The dominant discursive style, indebted to Pelléas et Mélisande,eschews repeated patterns and quotable arias, placing a premium on dramatic inflection and projection of text. Bloch’s Macbeths — unlike their counterparts in Verdi — hasten to their doom, with little opportunity to anticipate or enjoy their ill-gotten success, or even to mourn it. In his spare treatment of their lines, Bloch seems eager to stay close to speech, to make his music a lens without refraction or coloring of its own.

The performance had ideal vitality under conductor Laurent Pillot, who clearly relished the orchestra’s important role and unleashed riveting accelerandos at critical moments. Michael V. Moore’s modest unit set, relieved by touches of color in the banquet scene and by Daniel James Cole’s attractive Renaissance costumes, was appropriate and never distracting. 

The large cast met vocal challenges well but needed more French coaching to give the original version of the opera its due. Baritone Robert Mellon, an MSM alumnus, was vocally and dramatically intense in the long, arduous title role, if somewhat short on nuance. His tortured portrayal, with ringing outcries, emphasized subservience to Lady Macbeth. With the compelling Maria Natale as his wife, that uxoriousness was absolutely convincing, especially its clearly demonstrated erotic basis. Natale ruled the stage in her comparatively brief appearances, including the opera’s parsimonious sleepwalking scene, thanks to radiant stage presence, merciless dramatic focus and, at one rare moment, high-voltage vocal thrills in the top register. 

This is an opera that looks on paper, and sounds on recordings, a lot like a vehicle for the baritone in the title role. Seen onstage — especially at MSM — the work proves an effective ensemble piece and in fact something of a star turn for the chorus. The crowd scenes that conclude Acts I and III had the kind of chilling impact we’ve come to associate with choral outbursts in Peter Grimes or Boris Godunov, thanks in part to director Dona D. Vaughn’s staging and the clear contrapuntal textures maintained by conductor Pillot. The aural clash at the end between Macbeth’s forces and the invading army gave the performance a vivid climax, rather than the rushed, pat impression left by recordings.

Another surprise here was the success of the opera’s secondary characterizations. Even in the briefest roles, splendid moments were provided by Elliott Page (as Duncan), Tobias Klassen (the Porter), Brittany Nickell (Lady Macduff) and Jordan Rutter (Macduff’s son). In somewhat more significant roles, James Ludlum excelled as Banquo, Xiaomeng Zhang as Macduff, while the trio of witches — Catherine Swindle, Lisa Barone and Niru Liu — were a marvel. Vaughn’s staging extended the ladies’ brief hour upon the stage with some mute business, abetted by John Heginbotham’s choreography. Bloch lavishes incidental charms on all these figures, offsetting the sobriety with which he treats the Macbeths and adding layers of expressivity to this dark tragedy. spacer 

DAVID J. BAKER

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