The set-up: Giuseppe Verdi's Macbeth (1847; revised for Paris, 1865) is his first true masterpiece. While his earlier operas have stirring passages (Nabucco's choral "Va pensiero," which practically became Italy's national anthem, is a highlight of what he called his "galley years" as a composer), this adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy of ambition and blood lust stands apart from almost anything he ever wrote.
Innovative in scoring and psychologically apt, with a literate and faithful adaptation by Francesco Piavi, this work shows a deepening maturity that would suddenly erupt into those subsequent pieces (Rigoletto, Il trovatore, La traviata, Un ballo in mascera) that would make Verdi the most famous and revered of all opera composers. Macbeth was so new in its sound, in its structure, in its novel handling of operatic conventions, in its rightness to the Bard, that, while it was a success, it was never an audience favorite. The mid-19th century operagoer preferred his minor I due Foscari or I masnadieri, which are musty museum pieces now. It took one hundred years for Macbeth to be recognized as the touchstone work of Italian opera.
The execution: Opera in the Heights presents a thrilling production of the "Scottish play," chillingly sung -- the Ruby cast opened the run and alternates with an Emerald cast. Director Lynda McKnight gives it a Mad Max look, setting all the revenge and killing against an apocalyptic background of battlefield encampment which does Verdi little harm.
Some of her choices are questionable, like making Lady Macbeth a dominatrix Brünnhilde. Looking for the dagger, she pulls a whip out of the footlocker and snaps it smartly on the floor. If nothing else, this interpretation adds a provocative layer of kink to the dysfunctional Macbeths. The witches are dressed in a stylish assortment of '60s couture with Haight-Ashbury wigs in kaleidoscopic Day-Glo. They certainly are "weird sisters," as Shakespeare describes, and are not of this futuristic grunge army in its fatigues, boots, and camouflage. During the cauldron scene, when Macbeth demands to know his fortune, the witches concoct their brew and inject the king with bubbling green elixir, which sends him hallucinating. The lighting goes all trippy, and TV screens around the stage broadcast the parade of haunted former kings. Macbeth's vision during the earlier dagger aria, "Is this a dagger I see before me," is telecast on these TVs too, as is Banco's ghost during the banquet scene when Macbeth's conscience almost unhinges him, but more could have been made of the mixed media. It remains a gimmick, a good one, but a gimmick nonetheless.
The singing is impressive all down the line, with the chorus shining in the famous "Patria oppressa," where the Scots lament the sad state of their country. If one can shine while being depressed and forlorn, OH's chorus blazes with unhappiness.
Argentinean baritone Gustavo Ahualli, as Macbeth, has one hell of a beautiful Verdian voice, full, rich, and powerful. His singing was effortless and ripe with machismo. His characterization, however, didn't match his plangent tone. He wasn't really there until felled by Banco's ghost in the banquet scene. There was no chemistry with his gorgon wife, and for Shakespeare's grisly tale to really work, these two have got to have a sexy, depraved relationship. They are partners in crime, equals in evil. Ahualli got a better handle on the role when Macbeth was alone.
Soprano Rosa D'Imperio, as Lady Macbeth, has a name that says it all. She has a steamroller of a voice, big and lush. She practically let off a sonic boom during her opening aria, the famous "letter scene," where she lays out her plan for the king's murder. "I will enflame your cold heart," she boasts in a showstopping burst of vocal gymnastics. D'Imperio blew the roof off Lambert Hall, and then wisely toned everything down afterward. Her "sleep walking" scene, perhaps opera's most sublime mad scene ever, was lovingly handled with gentle pianissimos while also scaling those dramatic heights Verdi asks for. While she didn't float that famous high D, which is her final, eerie farewell to sanity, she did at least land it. If Ahualli had only met her halfway as hubby, the combo would be gangbusters.
Bass Aaron Sonensen delivered Banco's deep-dish forebodings with consummate control, as did tenor Jason Wickson as Macduff, whose family is murdered on orders from Macbeth in his unstoppable quest for power. Wickson overlayed his romanza, "Ah, la paterna mano," with an astonishingly resonant bel canto style. This is Verdi at his old-fashioned best, turning out an aria that sounds as if from the operatic past, but yet still looks forward with characteristic flourishes in orchestration that make it forever modern. Mezzo Laura Riggs as Lady in Waiting, tenor Nathan de Paz as Malcolm, and bass Daymon Passmore as the Doctor, ably rounded out the cast.
Maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo led his orchestra with passion and fervor, although Lady Macbeth's banquet drinking song, the "Brindisi," as she attempts to misdirect the guests' attention away from her husband who's going bonkers when Banco's ghost appears, was played on the stately side, without appropriate fire and frenzy. Throughout, the woodwinds and brass sounded especially fine.
The verdict: Verdi amplifies Shakespeare with volcanic fury and unrelenting wickedness. The orchestra color is first-rate, almost always in a minor key, with marvelous, strange orchestrations that hint at madness and weird goings-on. The sublime poetry is there, too -- directly in the music.
But where was the opening night audience? Lambert Hall was only half-filled, which I haven't seen in recent memory. OH's subscription base is bigger than ever, and the enterprise has grown in stature and expertise since the arrival of its new maestro. Where was everybody? Don't let this exciting production pass you by.
Verdi's thrilling adaptation of this blood-splattered Scot and his most enabling spouse plays through February 10 at Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Blvd. Ruby cast: Feb 2, 7, 9; Emerald cast: February 1, 8, 10. Purchase tickets online at operaintheheights.org or call 713-861-5303. $10-$55.