Minnesota Opera presents Verdi’s Macbeth

16 Feb

Minnesota Opera’s world-class production of Verdi’s Macbeth proved the perfect accessory to the harsh winter conditions that befell the Twin Cities at the time of its premiere on January 25th. The icy precipitation that shut down the Minnesota public school system did not thwart attendance to the ShakesVerdian piece at St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, which remained more than well attended throughout its dazzling run. Thankfully for the patrons, it was all well worth the hassle, for in terms of production and musical values the regional company could once again boast a night at the opera which more prestigious companies would be hard pressed to provide.

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Greer Grimsley (Macbeth) and Brenda Harris (Lady Macbeth). Photo by Michal Daniel

At the musical helm of the affair was the figure of artistic director Michael Christie, whom we found more at home (certainly in terms of phrasing) with the language of early Verdi than during much of last year’s Nabucco. In negotiating the tremendous sonic elements from both pit and stage, his sense of balance was superb; and while his musical leadership may not be the last word in the Italian style, it certainly has further simmered. Throughout, his cinematic baton was aptly sinister for one of Verdi’s darkest creations, allowing us to predict an important and creative exponent of the Italian repertoire if such development continues.

The Minnesota Opera is known for its superior production values and this Macbeth was no exception, though not without substantial compromise. Perhaps still recovering from a recent budget deficit following its spectacular 50th anniversary season, the company recycled former production sets to construct the visual aesthetic of Macbeth. In the able hands of director Joel Ivany and his creative team, these restrictions proved a blessing in disguise; a lesson to any company experiencing monetary hardships in these trying economic times. The sets were composed of huge, concrete-like water stained panels, which set against the darks skies provided a period-unspecific staging for the cruel and blunt action to flourish: perhaps in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, or behind the iron curtain. Surprisingly, the garish nature of the sets could be effectively reversed for the second act banquet scene by adding a touch of color; red velvet, for instance. Moreover, through the subtle lighting design of the brilliant Jason Hand, Mr. Ivany achieved a successfully festive atmosphere without compromising the essential unsettling nature of the surroundings. His stark vision was perfected by the creations of costume designer Camelia Koo, evocative of imagery most Europeans would equate with oppression, fear and imminent disaster: the witches in light dark cloaks and avian plague masks (a nod to the times of the black death), while dressing the military elements in severe double breasted trench coats and gas masks reminiscent of the first world war.

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The Minnesota Opera Chorus (Witches) and Greer Grimsley (Macbeth). Photo by Michal Daniel

Within this bare frame, Mr. Ivany interpolated his own interpretative touches unto the production by projecting images of blood and gory apparitions through the efforts of projection designer Sean Nieuwenhuis. These innovations were effective to those receptive to them, while easy to ignore by those who regarded them as demerits. More disruptive were the unnecessary introductions of comprimarios and members of the chorus in the auditorium (really, stop it), and the excessive participation of the witches in almost every scene of the opera, seemingly egging on the proceedings as if they have a stake in the whole affair. The events of Macbeth are tragic because of the choices people make based on the pieces of the puzzle they have been granted, not because an invisible weird sister is writhing by a scheming Lady Macbeth. Aside from this, the visual elements of this production provided the appropriate framework upon which Minnesota Opera’s ruthless principals could do their bidding.

In choosing the principals for this production, the Minnesota Opera secured the services of Greer Grimsley and Brenda Harris, two of the world’s finest interpreters of the lead parts. This is not the first time these two singers have met onstage as the eponymous couple. Four years ago, they paired as the Scottish duo for Opera Lyra in Ottawa, Canada to extraordinary critical acclaim. Their reprise performances for Minnesota Opera went beyond success: It paralleled the outrageous sonic experience of a rock concert. Leading the pack was Greer Grimsley, a tall slender figure of proud, secure footing and a cascade of salt and pepper locks that collided to make up his impressive mane, whose impersonation of the title role was both absolute and overwhelming. He was iconic of the tortured, ambitious usurper, and his voice more than matched his stage presence. This was a true bass baritone voice of Wagnerian heft, which he unleashed with deceptively controlled abandonment. While it’s most immediate appeal was its explosive size (his “Banquo! l’eternità t’apre il suo regno” was awesome), a closer inspection of the instrument revealed further offerings.  His top is easy, incisive and large, while the low notes are uncharacteristically clear, dark and booming. When applied to the suspended melodic arc, there was a noticeable shift in color and production when Mr. Grimsley navigated the registers. But his technique has made the voice malleable, allowing him to showcase the differences in sound without betraying a break in his line of singing. Armed with this arsenal, he was free to express Macbeth’s conflict through the gamut of his numerous musical outbursts, which his vocalism excelled at.

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Greer Grimsley (Macbeth). Photo by Michal Daniel

Macbeth is one of Verdi’s most experimental early works, and he lavished the part with a plethora of solos benefiting from the declamatory style that fit Mr. Grimsley’s proclivities like a glove. From the moment of indecision during the dagger scene, to the vision of the Banquo at the royal banquet and the apparition sequence with the witches, he dared push his resources to their perceived edge. It made for a very exciting listening experience. The overwhelming effect of Mr. Grimsley’s singing also provided a fair trade off for some of the elements less well fulfilled by his vocal prowess. His is not a conventional Verdi instrument, and while the opera does not bank in the standard fare of bel canto set pieces that would necessitate it, it still makes a casual requirement of it. While his first aria “Due vaticini compiuti or sono” hints of it, it is his fourth act solo which completely reveals the limitations in shaping of the Italian cantinela. This, the famous “Pieta, rispetto, amore” did not pulse in waves of Mediterranean warm as renditions of other famous predecessors have done. What Mr. Grimsley did offer in its place was equally remarkable, for he leaned on the troubled King’s tortured words with an intensity rarely heard before, making for a truly cathartic denouement.

The role of Lady Macbeth poses supreme difficulties for the gutsy prima donnas who dare take on its challenges. The role’s technical rigors are represented in four testing solos designed to express the character’s ruthless and complex personality, while calling upon the singer to display the gamut of the bel canto vocal arsenal. While few have survived the difficulties (let alone claim to conquer them,) there will appear every once in a while a singer who encompasses all the necessary qualities to own the role, and the Minnesota Opera has found her in soprano Brenda Harris. Here we had a singer equally at home in virtually all the exhaustive and disparate challenges called upon by the score. As we have noted in prior opportunities (Elektra, Norma, Attila, Nabucco,) hers is a soprano of impressive dramatic heft, evenly produced throughout its range, and celebrated for its extraordinarily flexibility. For these performances of Macbeth, Ms. Harris made full use of these qualities to offer forth one of her most complete impersonations. For her sortita, the intimidating “Vieni t’affretta!” was delivered with absolute assurance of style and method, the uncomfortable rhythmic shifts easily negotiated, yet always impeccably graced with its often omitted ornaments (the crisp trills in the lower range on the important phrase “Io ti daro valore” were included). For the enhanced hurdles of the cabaletta (“Or tutti sorgete”) she skated through every ascending scale as well as the cruel descend to a cavernous low B in full voice with neck breaking speed and extraordinary precision.

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Brenda Harris (Lady Macbeth). Photo by Michal Daniel

Her interactions with the Macbeth of Greer Grimsley did not only signal the introduction of another great singer to the stage, but the unveiling of an artistic partnership of historic importance. Instead of projecting a competitive atmosphere across the footlights, the artistic level blossomed through their collaboration as one singer seemingly inspired the other to greater heights: Instead of the usual: “You heard him, now listen to me”, we were treated to the rare: “Now listen to us”. Vocally, both singers were evenly matched in terms of sonority, and their voices blended in a muscular and musical manner throughout their keynote duet “Fatal mia donna!”, which further displayed Grimsley’s Macbeth as the conflicted, unwilling tyrant to be against Harris’s Lady and her gleeful, single minded mission towards the throne. The concertato which closes the first act found her in scintillating voice, fully riding the ensemble without bullying her way past the sleeve of sound. Act two’s “La luce langue” was introduced by way of an intimate and seductive dialogue with Mr. Grimsley, a sexual camaraderie projecting a murder. The aria itself posed different opportunities for Ms. Harris, who admirably navigated its altogether lower tessitura. Its disjunct leaps to the extremes of the range never found her straying from a meticulously achieved placement, though the eerie line “Ai trapassati regnar non cale”, whispered in her contralto depths, could have benefited from greater support. She more than recovered with the arias closing outbursts, for which she lavished a stunning sequence of sustained high Bs.

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Greer Grimsley (Macbeth) and Brenda Harris (Lady Macbeth). Photo by Michal Daniel

Lady Macbeth’s thirst for blood and power now gave way to an altogether different type of display. As sung by Ms. Harris, the brindisi in the banquet scene enjoyed an almost Handelian flair, and she dared the persnickety cognoscenti to spot any missing turn or semiquaver dictated in the score. The introductory statement was gay and light hearted, the charming hostess leading her guests into merriment. When the event turned towards chaos, she directed her reprise towards her husband in an attempt to soothe his madness by way of interminable trills. It is indeed remarkable that this very voice could then dominate the act’s closing ensemble with such commanding ease. For the famous sleepwalking scene, she was a fine tragedienne who languished in the throes of a catatonic routine. She reserved some of her most intimate and tortured singing for this final offering, which she capped via a delicate yet full voiced pianissimo carried up to the high D flat. The infinitely regretful tone at the realization that her hands will never be clean again singled out the irony in her nonplused observation in the first act duet, revealing a woman destined to pay the price of her lust on the back end.

Rounding out the cast of these extraordinary performances was the work of the superb Minnesota Opera Chorus, which represented the third character of main importance in this work. Under the direction of the famously chipper Rob Ainsley, their subdivided forces excelled as the jittery witches (even carrying Mr. Grimsley above their shoulders at one point), and Macbeth’s bandits and militia. Their collective efforts as the chorus Scottish refugees (“Patria oppressa!”) made for a stunning wall of sound. Another big sound came from Alfred Walker, who’s Banquo attained a noble bearing by way of an ample bass voice of remarkable clarity. His aria “Come dal ciel precipita” was well sung, though it regrettably marked the end of his musical involvement.

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The Minnesota Opera Chorus (Witches). Photo by Michal Daniel

In the interim, Harold Meers’s Macduff claimed the only tenor aria to be heard all evening (“Ah, la paterna mano”). Indeed, Macbeth is one of the rare occasions where Verdi did not bountifully spoil the tenor fach, setting the stage for a significantly smaller role to hog all the attention. Mr. Meers’s tenor is well produced and more than serviceable, and he received considerable applause, though we will state that his rendition did not overstep the boundaries of his position. From the cast of comprimario talent, soprano Shannon Prickett as Lady Macbeth’s Lady in waiting made much of her tiny assignment. She is an artist your friends at newoutpost have heard before in various young artist concerts, and a bright future is predicted for this young lady.

The Minnesota Opera next tackles “The Dream of Valentino”, a composition by Minnesota’s own Dominick Argento, and features tenor James Valenti in the title role. For more information on this and the rest of the company’s season, please visit

-Daniel Vasquez

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