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HGO's Macbeth sounds great. Its look, though, is another matter.

Using surreal staging and costumes in operatic productions can be a risky business. Sometimes the results are appealing; sometimes they're appalling. In the case of Houston Grand Opera's new production of Giuseppe Verdi's Macbeth, the results are decidedly mixed. At times the staging enhances the production, but more often it detracts from it.

That's unfortunate, because HGO has assembled a solid cast for this particular production of Verdi's work. In Verdi's operatic version of Shakespeare's literary masterpiece, Lady Macbeth is the dominant figure. She is the opera's central focus, and the principal arias belong to her. Consequently, a strong performer is needed in the role of Lady Macbeth for a production of the work to be successful.

HGO has such a performer in soprano Catherine Malfitano. At Sunday's matinee, Malfitano was magnificent. Her first-act rendition of the aria "Vieni! t'affreta!," in which Lady Macbeth vows that she will inspire her husband to seize the throne of Scotland, drew enthusiastic applause. In the same act, her interpretation of "Or tutti sorgete," in which Lady Macbeth calls upon the forces of evil to aid her in her quest, was also a crowd pleaser.

But Malfitano was at her best in the opera's final act, when she sang "Una macchia e qui tutt'ora" during Lady Macbeth's famous sleepwalking scene -- the one in which she goes through the motions of attempting to wash blood from her hands. Malfitano sang this aria, probably Macbeth's best-known number, with power and conviction. The certainty in her voice carried over to her acting; Malfitano was more than convincing in her portrayal of Lady Macbeth as the domineering and power-hungry woman Verdi envisioned.

In the role of Macbeth himself, baritone Sergei Leiferkus was similarly excellent. Like Malfitano, he sang and acted superbly. His rendition of "Pieta, rispetto, amore" in the final act, when Macbeth realizes that he will not live to see old age, was deeply moving. He was also effective at conveying the image of Macbeth as a pawn of his scheming wife.

As is the case in several of Verdi's other early works, the chorus has a prominent role in this opera. At Sunday's matinee, the HGO chorus was outstanding from start to climactic finish. At the beginning of the fourth act, the chorus offered a heartfelt rendition of the work's most famous choral number, "Patria oppressa!," in which a group of Scottish refugees who have fled to England bemoan the fate of their country under Macbeth's bloody rule.

The Houston Symphony, led by Simone Young in her HGO debut, offered a crisp interpretation of Verdi's haunting score; and in the roles of Banquo and Macduff, respectively, bass Daniel Sumergi and tenor Rafael Rojas turned in noteworthy performances. But there were difficulties, the primary problem being the surreal and minimalist staging, which tended to detract from the performance rather than enhance it.

For this particular production of Macbeth, the setting has been updated to the present. The action occurs primarily in two locales: a dingy hallway in what appears to be some type of institution, and a sparsely furnished room with tacky wallpaper. The lighting is dark and foreboding. Though this helps to convey the sinister nature of the plot, it at times obscures what is happening on the stage.

Particularly problematic are the scenes involving the witches, which are bizarre if not downright silly. In the first act, for instance, the witches appear attired in chartreuse nurses' uniforms. Several perform menial tasks, such as mopping the floor, while the others stand around them. In the third act, the witches appear again, this time dressed in red leather outfits. In one scene, one of the witches writhes around on the floor while most of the others are seated in chairs along the wall.

What all this is supposed to mean is not immediately obvious. Moreover, it tends to divert the viewer's attention away from the opera's other elements, such as the plot progression and the singing. However, in several instances, the staging is effective: The second-act banquet scene in which Lady Macbeth sings a lively drinking song while cavorting on a tabletop before a throng of admirers was particularly well-handled. So was the opera's final scene, in which Macduff's invading army crashes through the walls.

Still, this production might have benefited from a more traditional staging. Macbeth isn't performed as frequently as Verdi works such as Rigoletto and La Traviata, and it might help to see a traditional setting of the opera before a more innovative staging can truly be appreciated.

Nevertheless, HGO deserves commendation for presenting this relatively obscure Verdi work. And despite the production's flaws, operagoers should enjoy it for the acting and vocal performances alone.

Macbeth plays through November 2 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas, 227-

 
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