Friends and Foes of the Enlightenment: Glimmerglass 2015, Fortieth Anniversary Season

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Eric Owens as Macbeth, Melody Moore as Lady Macbeth. Photo Dory Schultz.

Eric Owens as Macbeth, Melody Moore as Lady Macbeth. Photo Dory Schultz.


When Francesca Zambello took the helm of Glimmerglass in 2012, she swore off thematic links  in each season’s repertory. However, each year I find that there is ample evidence to suggest choices that are more than subconsciously associated. This season, for example, the operas seem to form a discourse around the philosophical underpinnings of the Enlightenment and the ways in which reason, clarity and vision are at odds with myth, solipsism and purblind fancy. Most obviously, Leonard Bernstein’s vastly entertaining Candide is operetta based on Voltaire’s farce of Gottfried Leibniz’s rationalist and sententious “optimism” and the belief that our world is the “best of all possible worlds.”  In Mozart’s The Magic Flute, the forces of deception, decay and darkness are pitted against light, reason and freedom. Mozart’s librettist, Emanuel  Schikaneder delves into this subject adding a lot of Freemasonic subtext about which Mozart blithely angles both some of his most delightful and profound music.  Of course, Freemasonry attempted to achieve a state of “enlightenment” through the rubrics of esoteric ritual and secrecy combined with its own brand of social inclusion though a like-minded brotherhood and dedication to charity.  Kelley Rourke’s rewriting of Schikaneder substitutes the original’s shallow debate on the moral and ideological domains of “light and dark” with the timely conflict of nature’s guardians and those inclined to destroy it.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, written and set well before the Enlightenment, posits the horrific moral and social ironies inherent in the world of magic, superstition and predetermination. Verdi’s post- Enlightenment retelling fits perfectly with Romanticism’s “Counter-Enlightenment” fascination with the spirit world, and the irrational influences of the subconscious.  Cato in Utica, Vivaldi’s rarely heard masterpiece, the final of this season’s main-stage offerings, illuminates the tragic life of the Roman senator Cato, who is self-doomed by a vainglorious and unbending will that is blind to the mitigating aspects of the human condition and ignores reason.

 

Macbeth

Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei, after Shakespeare.
Conductor Joseph Colaneri
Director Anne Bogart
Choreographer Barney O’Hanlon
Sets James Schuette
Costumes James Schuette and Beth Goldenberg
Lighting Robert Wierzel
Projected Titles Kelley Rourke
Hair & Makeup Anne Ford-Coates

Macbeth Eric Owens
Banquo Soloman Howard
Lady Macbeth Melody Moore
Lady-in-Waiting Mithra Mastropierro*
Servant Nathan Milholin*
Malcolm Marco D. Cammarota*
Macduff Michael Brandenburg*
Assassin Derrell Acon*
Herald Hunter Enoch*
Doctor Nathan Milholin*
Apparition Vanessa Becerra*
Apparition Jasmine Habersham*
Apparition Rhys Lloyd Talbot*
Duncan Simon Carr-Ellison
Fleanzio Aiden Delany

* Young Artist

 

Shakespeare’s stygian supernatural tragedy, replete with witches, paradoxical prophesies, grisly murders and ghosts, was embraced enthusiastically by Verdi. He made the following remark: “This tragedy is one of the greatest creations of man.” His enthusiasm for the play and his own adaptation never waned. The original Italian four-act 1847 score was heavily revised in 1865, the latter version used a libretto in French and was in five acts. This 1865 revision really has the most compelling music for Lady Macbeth and the chorus, the latter carrying much of the weight of the opera. In fact, the choruses throughout Macbeth show Verdi at his most innovative and are on the par with those in his Requiem.  Tonight’s performance followed the revised version, sung in Italian, with the laudatory reinstatement of “Mal per me che m’affidai,” Macbeth’s stunning final aria from the original.

The Witches. Photo Karli Cadel.

The Witches. Photo Karli Cadel.

Eric Owens as Macbeth. Photo Karli Cadel.

Eric Owens as Macbeth. Photo Karli Cadel.

Anne Bogart’s production aimed at accentuating the rapid and nervous pacing of Verdi’s vocal structures in which the arias and ensembles are quite short providing for a sweeping dramatic flow.  She transposes the action to the 1920s, and lets us imagine how the original Scottish plot might fit in that different historical context.  One wonders, though, whether this period is being overused today by opera directors as a catch-all era of uncertainty, social and political unrest, and a collapsing economic structure. However, it is challenging to reimagine an alternative historical correlative mirroring the events portrayed in eleventh-century Scotland. The costumes, at times, seemed clichéd: Macbeth and Banquo in long buttoned coats made them look more like patrol police rather than warriors or generals. Luckily, as Macbeth’s fortunes unraveled, so did his garb, possibly symbolizing his gradual undoing. The three witches of the original Shakespeare tragedy become, in Verdi’s score, three female choirs. Possibly tipping a hat to the recent Met production, the witches are staged as vagabond bag ladies, toting their belongings through the dank moors.  However, one of director Anne Bogart’s best and most original touches was to seamlessly transition the witches from the opening scene to the ensuing scene, in which they clearly become Macbeth’s house servants.  This transformation is aligned with Ms. Bogart’s program note describing how she wanted to show that evil and magic are immanent in the Macbeths’ world, rather than being arbitrary external forces. Bass-baritone Eric Owens, this season’s Artist in Residence as well as chairman of the Glimmerglass Advisory Board, has been prominently featured here throughout the past three seasons.  His Verdi can be brilliant, as witnessed in his 2012 performance of Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida. His intelligence, intensity and sonorous lows are his hallmarks.  His Macbeth is a neurotic, nearly bipolar man, insecure in his grasp, his direction, and progressively overcome by guilt and suspicion.  Macbeth’s decline from a stalwart general in Act I to a frightened beast by the opera’s end was masterfully shaped by Mr. Owens.  The higher vocal registers of the role, when approached from a lower tessitura, at times, appeared to be a challenge, especially on this warm evening. Nonetheless, Owen’s Macbeth was sung with much conviction and intensity.

The vocal demands for Lady Macbeth, are even more extraordinary.  From her first moments on stage, when she reads Macbeth’s letter, “Vieni t’affretta … Or tutti, sorgete,” her voice must fly wildly from low to high, with mad, heroic conviction.  Soprano Melody Moore, who debuted here in 2013 as Senta (Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman), was undaunted by the coloratura athleticism required here.  In the subsequent arias, from the 1865 revision, Verdi was more concerned about establishing a psychological mood or soundworld for the infamous Lady than in vocal pyrotechnics.  In the second act, Ms. Moore delivered a haunting “La luce langue.” Unfortunately, a glitch in which an errant fluorescent light flashed on menacingly, almost on cue with the text, “The light is fading,” could have been risible. However, most were too transfixed by Ms. Moore’s voice to be seriously distracted.

Melody Moore as Lady Macbeth. The Sleepwalking Scene. Photo. Karli Cadel.

Melody Moore as Lady Macbeth. The Sleepwalking Scene. Photo. Karli Cadel.

The wonderful sleepwalking scene, was certainly one of the high points of the night. Lady Macbeth virtually floated between her servants and it seemed less like a portrayal of a mad somnambulist than of a woman fully at peace in her broken mind, compulsively obsessing about bloody deeds and hands. The D-flat aria, “Una Macchia,” with its incessant pattern of jittering rhythms, which wax and wane to a piercing semitone dissonance for oboe, requires a unified effort by conductor, orchestra, director and soloist.  The smothered febricity was deftly captured by Mr. Colaneri, the orchestra, Ms. Bogart’s incandescent staging, and most of all, Ms. Moore’s remarkable voice. Soloman Howard, the fine, dusky-voiced bass who portrayed Banquo, was superb in his in his prescient, “Studia il passo, o mio figlio” in the second act.

The walls in the Macbeth’s house were papered with an ingenious mix of images:  a velvety black background, oversized roses and iridescent highlighting.  Depending on the accent lighting, different interiors and effects could be conjured:  the plebian art taste of the Macbeths, to a spectral sheen in the sleepwalking scene.  Perhaps the most effective use of lighting and mise en scène was in the banquet scene when Banquo’s silent ghost appears to Macbeth. Kudos, as always, to lighting manager Mr. Wierzel.

Not all the dramatic touches were successful, however.  The great duet after Duncan’s murder in Act I, Lady Macbeth holds a dagger, a bit too deliberately near her husband’s crotch in a rather obvious visual trope to her emasculating counterpoint in “Tutto è finito,” At another point Macbeth uses a flashlight which roves its beam about.  “Out damned spot,” I  say.

Verdi’s most sophisticated writing is found throughout the many choruses.  The grief-laden “Patria oppressa,” is the stark and austere dirge of Scottish refugees, mourning the loss of the motherland. The chorus and orchestra under Mr. Colaneri showed great musicianship. Exceptional dynamic control is required here as Verdi demands both hushed pianissimos and arching fortissimos, often in quick succession;  the plangent oboe semitones that would become so significant in the sleepwaking scene peeked out from the gloom. Tenor Michael Brandenburg as Macduff, was perfectly heroic in his difficult “Ah, la paterna mano.” Tenor Marco Cammarota, an admirable Malcolm, joined in with the liberating duet and chorus, “La patria tradita.”

Finally, Mr. Owens gave an unusually nuanced “Pietà, rispetto, amore,” an aria requiring tragic majesty in the middle and low registers with considerable upper-voice agility in its final measures. Verdi, in 1865, would make this aria Macbeth’s final lament, but Mr. Colaneri’s inclusion of “Mal per me che m’affidai,” the “death aria” from the 1847 version, is certainly no anticlimax.  It is an outburst of self-malediction in which the growling lower brass encroach on a sinking Macbeth like the portals to hell.  Mr. Owens’ reserve in “Pietà” was well-calculated to give this final utterance an enormous dramatic impact.

 

Seth Lachterman

About Seth Lachterman

Seth Lachterman lives in Hillsdale, New York, which abuts the Berkshires in Massachusetts. While dividing his past academic career between music (composition and musicology) and mathematics, he has, over past three decades written original and critical works on the Arts. His essays have appeared in The Thomas Hardy Association Journal, English Literature in Transition, and poetry in Raritan. As a charter member and past president of the Berkshire Bach Society, he provided scholarly program notes for the Society’s concerts for two decades. Simultaneously, he has been a principal at Encore Systems, LLC, a software and technology consulting company. From 2006, is president emeritus of Walking The Dog Theatre of Hudson, New York. Seth writes regularly for Berkshire Review of The Arts. When not listening to music, Seth Lachterman reads philosophy with a current interest in Heidegger.

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