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The SOUND and Fury: It’s Double, Double Toil and Trouble as Bard Meets Baritone

Ed Rampell: In their manifesto Marx and Engels wrote “a specter is haunting Europe” and in Verdi’s version of the Shakespearean classic as presented at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, specters in the form of a coven of witches haunt the stage.
LA Opera McBeth

Placido Domingo and Ekaterina Semenchuk

MACBETH Opera Review

LA Opera’s outstanding production of Giuseppe Verdi’s operatic version of Macbeth is simply one of the best. In baritone mode, Plácido Domingo portrays the scheming tyrannical title character, whose recklessly over-ambitious wife Lady Macbeth (Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk) pushes her hapless husband over the edge in the power couple’s relentless quest for the throne of Scotland. In their quest for glory there are armed uprisings, a beheading and assassinations galore, although this show does not dwell on the gory. Verdi’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s circa 1606 tragedy opened in Florence in 1847, one year prior to the European revolutions that prompted Marx and Engels to pen The Communist Manifesto. It also seems extremely fitting that the current iteration of this drama about an unquenchable thirst for power manifests itself during America’s quadrennial presidential race.

In their manifesto Marx and Engels wrote “a specter is haunting Europe” and in Verdi’s version of the Shakespearean classic as presented at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, specters in the form of a coven of witches haunt the stage. The supernatural seems especially souped-up in this production: Instead of the Bard’s trio of witches there are nine (count ’em, nine!) who prophesy what will befall the dramatis personae and are quite wildly costumed with Julie Taymor-like flair by Sittirat Anne Larlarb, whose credits include Danny Boyle movies, London’s 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony (which scored an Outstanding Art Direction Emmy) and Broadway adaptations of movies and novels. (Macbeth’s other characters are Larlarb-garbed in what seems like appropriate apparel for Middle Ages Scotland.)

These totemic apparitions almost look as if they have scarlet stingrays attached to their backs. The feline fates and phantoms literally climb the walls, catlike - call them the “sound and furry.” The saucy sorceresses also scribble pentacles and other occult imagery and graffiti on the walls, with a little help from their friend - projection designer Sean Nieuwenhuis. During certain scenes Verdi’s score gets downright spooky, too. (In contrast, a 2012 rendition of the so-called “Scottish play” by Antaeus Company at North Hollywood downplayed the black magic angle, although Orson Welles’ celebrated 1936 Federal Theatre Project production was known as the “Voodoo Macbeth.”)

LA Opera McBeth

Co-scenic designer Colin McGurk’s set is, like the opera’s power mad protagonists, quite ambitious, as it captures the ambiance of the corridors of power within a castle, as well as the Scottish heath where heathen enchantresses stir smoldering, boiling cauldrons and are wreathed in more atmospheric fog than a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Lighting designer Matthew Richards also evokes the mood of the moors, including an elaborate, flickering candelabra (for a second I thought I was watching Phantom of the Opera). In terms of sheer stagecraft, this production is among LA Opera’s finest, although marred by a cutesy puppetry scene that’s too Disneyish, in the sense of being pretty Mickey Mouse.

In the second act’s first, forlorn scene, as Louis Biancolli and Robert Bagar wrote in The Victor Book of Operas, “In a magnificent chorus Scottish exiles bemoan their country’s plight under the usurper’s bloody tyranny.” Their lamentation of grief, caused by Lady Macbeth and her husband’s bloody conniving to capture the crown, is extremely sorrowful - you know, sort of what the USA will look like six months after Donald Mac-Trump takes the presidential oath and makes America hate again.

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I don’t think it’s necessary to announce a plot spoiler alert for a mid-19th century opera, with Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei’s libretto derived from a 400 year old play, so allow me to say that in the Shakespearean denouement, the more enlightened, benevolent wing of the ruling class triumphs, in order to set things right. This is a recurring theme in the works of the playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon, including Hamlet.

LA Opera McBeth

Ekaterina Semenchuk as Lady McBeth

75-year-old Domingo retains a commanding presence that belies his years and is quite adept at swordplay. Semenchuk is chilling as the cunning Lady Macbeth - from her guilt-wracked sleepwalking to the pussywhipping of her husband, even when Macbeth sits upon the throne, this drama queen (literally) comes across as literature’s über-beeatch, the lady you love to loathe.

LA Opera McBeth

Roberto Tagliavini as Banquo and Isaia Morgan as Fleance

As Macduff, Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz earned kudos from the ooh-ing and ah-ing aud (Angelino Joshua Guerrero plays the part in October). Roberto Tagliavini (who alternates with his fellow Italian Ildebrando D’Arcangelo) acquits himself as the doomed Banquo, as does Josh Wheeker as Malcolm. Serbian helmer Darko Tresnjak admirably directs the rather large company, with Steve Rankin assisting as fight director in this violent saga about social climbing backstabbers. Chorus director Grant Gershon helps the company give good voice, while James Conlon conducts Verdi’s score that ranges from scary to buoyant music.

After the final curtain the audience deservedly gave Plácido and company an enthusiastic, sustained standing ovation. The at times spine tingling opera almost seems a bit early, as this hoodoo Macbeth would be ideal for Halloween - but I see that, not to be outdone, at that witching hour LA Opera will be presenting Matthew Aucoin’s vampire opera Nosferatu at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, October 29-31. With this rousing rumination on the naked lust for power, LA Opera’s new season is off to a stellar start.

Macbeth is being performed Sunday, September 25, 2016, at 2:00 p.m., Wednesday, October 5, 2016, at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, October 8, 2016, at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, October 13, 2016, at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, October 16, 2016, at 2:00 p.m., at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com.

ed rampell

L.A.-based arts reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored The Hawaii Movie and Television Book. His interview with Viggo Mortensen is in the October issue of The Progressive Magazine.

Ed Rampell