Absent from its stage for 22 years, Verdi’s Macbeth returned to the New Orleans Opera this past weekend for two performances (November 11 and 13 to be exact), and as it came to pass, your friends at newoutpost just happened to be in town on unrelated business. What better way to cap the most outrageous and distasteful election cycle in our lifetime than to simmer in the dark world of Macbeth? In fact, we had to see it twice. This marks newoutpost’s first operatic venture in New Orleans, a city with a celebrated operatic history (Patti, Sontag, they were all here) and hard hit by the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Eleven years later, we’re happy to report that the company has made significant headways out of the shadows, and its 2016-17 season marks the return of the company’s tradition of offering four operas per season.
While this production of Macbeth ranked successful to the eyes and ears of this writer, it achieved this mark despite some crippling shortcomings. First, there’s the cavernous Mahalia Jackson theater, which despite its functional appeal does not have a flattering acoustic. Set designer Costantine Kritikos got a lot of mileage out of the white columns that comprised the bulk of his set, and was aided valiantly by the projection and lighting work of Don Darnutzer in adding texture to the otherwise blank surroundings. Amidst this tabula rasa, director Christopher Mattaliano knitted the various relationships of the drama well enough, but was at odds with Verdi’s idiom in the various transitions between scenes, bleeding one scene into the next with disregard to the natural separations of scenic tinta that are to be regarded in the operatic conventions of Verdi’s time. He dangerously overplayed his hand in his treatment of the witches, whose over presence threatened to overshadow the human tragedy at play (their involvement during Lady Macbeth’s somnambulism scene was particularly damaging). More troubling for the purposes of operatic presentation, the issues were not restricted to the production values. The Lousiana Philharmonic Orchestra is a fine ensemble, but under the overtly literal baton of conductor Robert Lyall it yielded an inflexible foundation and was often at odds with the principals onstage as well as with the chorus, who revealed themselves to be an unruly brood in more than one occasion. What ultimately set this production on its tracks was the presence of its three extraordinary principals.
These performances afforded newoutpost its first opportunity to hear the celebrated Baritone Michael Chioldi in what is becoming one of his signature parts: Macbeth, and we admit it was a fine first hearing. The voice is opulent, evenly grained, and able to create an impressive wall of sound when called upon to do so. The middle voice is unleashed with a masculine swagger, and he hooks his excursions to the upper range, a hallmark mannerism of the great American baritone Sherrill Milnes, to impressive effect. His opening scena, capped by the duettino “Due vaticini compiuti or son” served to establish these qualities and to slowly warm up his resources to the sonorous ensembles that awaited him in the second half of the evening. These began with the concertato that closed the banquet and ghost scenes (Sangue a me quell’ombra chiede), and the extraordinary sequence where the apparitions foretell the reign of Banquo’s progeny (Dalle basse e dall’alte regioni) where Mr. Chioldi unleashed his instrument with open throated abandon.
As the opera approached its final scenes, he saved enough voice to give a fine rendition of the famous aria “Pieta, rispetto, amore” (despite a curiously chipper tempo from the pit), and unapologetically reveled against this fate in the pages which combine the original 1847 Italian version and the opera’s 1865 French revision (something Verdi would have balked at) “Mal per me”. Throughout, Mr Chioldi’s Macbeth ranked complete with some casual reservations. He is a good actor, but not a terribly physical one (the sword fighting sequence did not convince), and if these performances are typical of his stagecraft, he has yet to take full advantage of his striking stage presence. Also, while his singing is impressive as singing goes, he should look forward to developing a greater gamut of expression through his declamation as his art mellows. We are sure this will be the case, as Mr. Chioldi continues to be a mainstay in theaters across the country. Your friends at newoutpost look forward to hearing more from this fine singer and how his art develops in the near future.
Making her debut with the New Orleans Opera Company in these performances, soprano Brenda Harris reprised her classic Lady Macbeth, this time as a replacement to the originally announced Mary Elizabeth Williams. Having previously heard her impersonation at the Des Moines Metro Opera and in the impressive production at the Minnesota Opera, your friends at newoutpost again qualify her accomplishments as first rate, and not only for conquering so completely one of the most testing roles written for her voice type. Singers who venture into this repertoire and (make a careers out of it) are not expected to leave the experience unscathed, and history has shown even the greatest artists suffer wear and tear to their instrument as their tenure on the Scottish throne runs its course: Perhaps a loss of steadiness at the top of the range, a stiffness in their passagework, or a sour hue in the tone of their voice. As of this writing, these have been miraculously avoided by Ms. Harris, who remains the supreme mistress of her incandescent soprano, that curiously cool and amber hued instrument made incisive and pliant by virtue of its extraordinary focus. If anything, each performance appears to inform the next one, building on an already complete musical interpretation of the role. Some have pointed out a lack of demonic drive in her assumption, and indeed her Lady Macbeth rarely reaches for the infernal plane. Instead, she finds these monstrous qualities within the human scale of her heroine, arguably a more daring and spine-chilling choice. Musically, she conquered the score’s hurdles with incomparable panache.
The bravura writing of her introductory scena, for example, held no terrors, the octave leaps and the intense ascending scales of the cabaletta’s cadenza accomplished with pin point accuracy and scintillating thrust. Hers is one of the most complete readings of this compound solo, graced with precise (and rarely heard) trills underlining “Io ti daro valore” and remaining rhythmically alert all the while never losing accuracy in execution. Her taunting of her husband in the duet that followed was reduced to an intimate, disturbing poker game, the mockingly taunting tone of “Sei vano, o Macbetto, ma primo d’ardire”, or the dismissive washing of Duncan’s blood on her hands which sets up her unravelling in the opera’s final act, just to mention a few, brought chills to the listener. For the jolly brindisi that graced the banquet scene, she reminded all present of her status as one of America’s leading Belcantistas by pacing her battleship-sized instrument through the various roulades and trills with ballerina precision. The role’s final test, the renowned sleepwalking scene, was realized with haunting tone; its unendingly long lines masterfully managed by this august artist who capped her evening with a beautiful pianissimo high D flat.
Another fine luminary in this cast was the Banquo of bass Burak Bilgili, an artist not unfamiliar to this blog but clearly not heard in his best light until these performances in New Orleans. Perhaps our previous sampling, as Mustafa in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, did little to reveal the true nature of the singer’s talents. Here, through the pages of the great Verdi, he was allowed to unleash an imposing, stately basso. The long lines of his address to his son “Come dal ciel precipita” were sung with steady footing and fine sonority. Perhaps inspired by the heavy hitters he shared the stage with, the Macduff of tenor Derek Taylor understandably wanted to come out and play, and in theory he had to goods to join in the merry making. His tenor is sturdy, of an attractive color, and has the proper proportions to do right by the role.
As heard on both nights however, he was held back by an inflexible technique which painted him to the corner of forward and wide in his testing solo “Ah la paterna mano”, leaving him with few routes to escape as the aria mercilessly made demands of his upper tessitura. He was thankfully joined by the more plaint voice of the Malcolm, tenor Tyler Smith, and their combined efforts roared with the vibrancy of a young Otello. May they be joined forever more. The remaining supporting cast, namely the part of the doctor and nurse curiously ranked as witches in this production, were well realized through the efforts of Horace English and Betsy Uschkrat.
The New Orleans Opera will follow Verdi’s Macbeth with presentations of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Gounod’s Faust. For more information, please visit the company’s website at www.neworleansopera.org