Ambition. Murder. Justice. Joel’s Review of MN Opera’s Macbeth

We were able to see the final dress rehearsal of MN Opera’s Macbeth on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2014. The opera runs Jan. 25-Feb. 2, 2014. Here is my review, and be sure to check back for Becky’s, always more positive take than mine, Sunday.  Tickets and information available at MN Opera.

Winterfest was starting, and Rice Park already had an ice castle, an ice throne, and an ice podium for the local news. Artists in the main part of the park were using their chainsaws to start shaping their sculptures. They were chatting with each other and forming a community.

Inside the Ordway, a different castle was being populated with icy people destroying community.

Macbeth is at the Ordway for the week, and Becky and I got to see the last dress rehearsal with a bunch of students who didn’t get the day off school due to the cold.

Prior to the event, Michael Christie, conductor of Macbeth, gave us a few noteworthy perspectives on this opera by Verdi. Before Verdi came along, Christie said, Opera was rather formulaic and all about the voice. Verdi, a “savage theatre nut,” wanted to provide a constant narrative experience with drama that the audience could connect to. He loved Shakespeare, though the English bard was not well known in Italy and poorly translated. Verdi’s Macbeth is based on an Italian translation of an English play, and one that skipped scenes at that. Nevertheless, Christie described Macbeth as a cinematic opera, with lots of introspection and a Macbeth that is uncharacteristically scared of ascending the throne when he first hears the prophesy.

Properly primed and ready, we entered the theater. I’d been listening to Verdi on Spotify all day and was stoked.

Quick summary of Macbeth if you don’t know: it takes place in Scotland. Macbeth and his friend, Banquo, are heading home from a battle and come across some witches who tell Macbeth he will be king, and Banquo that his offspring will be kings. Macbeth and his wife plot to kill the king. Then he kills Banquo, but the son gets away. More murder, ambition, some prophesies give Macbeth a false sense of security, and in the end he’s killed.

So, a three word summary: Ambition. Murder. Justice. (Take that, Abridged Shakespeare Company!)

Fans of the play know that Lady Macbeth is one of the great roles in theatre. She’s a force of nature that steels Macbeth’s resolve when it even shows a hint of wavering. Think Angela Lansbury in Manchurian Candidate. Think Laura Linney in Mystic River. Think Madea.

Brenda Harris as Lady Macbeth enters the stage with all that grandeur, on top of a moving staircase, reading a note from her husband about the prophesy. A note that is projected onto the raised stage floor in letters that melt into a pool of blood as she descends the stairs. It’s a breathtaking entrance, and about the best scene in this production.

Macbeth is also wonderfully sung by Greer Grimsley. Both leads were fantastic and doing what they do best.

The other breathtaking scene takes place right away – the curtain opens on a battlefield littered with the fallen soldiers wearing gas masks for a reason that is never explained or made clear in a production where people fight with swords and wear breastplates.

0172-Grimsley

From the soldiers rise the opera’s third most important actor – the chorus of women who play the three witches. This chorus will remain throughout many of the scenes, either in the background or even among the audience, scaring the bejebus out of Becky at one point when she saw a witch perched on the stairs right next to me. They serve as a constant reminder of fate that hangs behind everyone.

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The stage itself is an evolving set of cracked asphalt walls and stairs that resemble an abandoned ruined city like pictures you see of former industrial areas near Chernobyl. The air in this Scotland is about as toxic. The director makes use of several of the walls for projection of some pretty disturbing imagery at one point – blood, an eye socket with worms in it – happy dreams!

1170-Grimsley

The costuming is similarly bereft of color. Everyone wears black. Everyone but those about to die and Lady Macbeth’s maid for some reason. Even the invading army at the end is wearing, not exactly black, but dim enough colors that you wonder how they even know who to fight from the other side. This lack of color makes red pop out like crazy whenever it comes into play at several times over the course of the evening.

For a play with so much murder, it all happens off stage or behind the curtain. And Verdi didn’t populate his opera with much as far as grand arias that stick like those from Rigoletto or La traviata. Oddly enough I found myself humming tunes from those pieces on the way home that night instead of anything from the production I just saw.

In the end, I’d say this one is for the true opera aficionados, and maybe goth teens given the amount of black clothes. Don’t go to this as your first experience – it’s really dark, both literally and figuratively. The music is beautifully dark as well, but I don’t remember a single piece. And the story doesn’t match up for someone steeped in Shakespeare prior to this – there’s little of the wonderful persuasion and self delusion nuance that goes on in the play that translates to the opera. This Macbeth, after a brief “What the hell am I going to do now” moment after hearing his fate, pretty much just goes ahead with his murder spree without much doubt.

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