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The company’s legendary general director sings the title role, bringing power, artistry and more than a little of Shakespeare’s complexity to the demanding tragic lead
September 27, 2016 :: 4:40 PM
Photos: Karen Almond / LA Opera
One of Plácido Domingo’s few concessions to age was down-shifting to baritone roles six years ago after decades of singing the greatest leading tenor parts in opera houses around the world. At 75, long after most singers would have retreated to the safety of concert recitals, the restless, ambitious artist is not content to simply sing the supporting father roles. Instead, to kick off LA Opera’s new season, the company’s legendary general director sings the title role in Verdi’s Macbeth, bringing power, artistry and more than a little of Shakespeare’s complexity to the demanding tragic lead.
The new production is staged and co-designed (with Colin McGurk) by Tony-winning director Darko Tresnjak, whose theater work includes directing Shakespeare’s tragedy for Hartford Stage in 2013. Perhaps it is Tresnjak’s stage background that has allowed some of the Bard’s nuances to color Verdi’s blunter adaptation. Both Domingo and the radiant Russian mezzo soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk as Lady Macbeth excavate the music for hidden emotional conflict that renders both characters more complicated and, ultimately, sympathetic than Verdi painted them.
Tresnjak’s staging is mostly traditional with the exception of using nine nimble dancers to represent the evil conjured up by Verdi’s chorus of witches. Dressed as frightful felines with long tails and nasty, exposed spines, these creepy creatures infiltrate scenes, climb walls, conjure potions and remind us that evil can find many ways to infect and inspire. While initially quite unsettling, the creatures are later used for more comic effect, including a bizarre sequence in which they seem to twerk on bassinets holding a series of horrific babies, diluting the power of the evil they embody.
For the most part, the production allows the one or two characters onstage to stand and deliver, and deliver they do. Semenchuk has the strength and presence to share the stage with a legend like Domingo, and her initial scene—in which she plots to drive her husband’s latent ambition to murderous acts—shimmers. In her later sleep-walking scene, she fully commits to the psychological reality of the character and convinces us that evil has eaten Lady M. from within. By her final, gorgeously whispered notes, we are surprisingly sympathetic to her anguish and guilt. The septuagenarian Domingo is a marvel, attacking the demanding role with the voice and energy of a man half his age. When we get to his Act Four aria “Pieta, rispetto, amore,” he appears to have actually gained strength as a singer two-and-a-half hours into the production, planting himself on a downstage wall and filling the hall with power and regret with an energetic, emotionally expressive baritone. This production allows Macbeth his final death aria, as well, which Verdi cut in the 1865 revision of his 1847 original. It was a welcome surprise and a bonus to hear Maestro Domingo deliver it.
The supporting cast is small in Macbeth, and all were strong. Italian bass Roberto Tagliavini, so charismatic in last season’s Marriage of Figaro, has authority and command as Banquo, and LA Opera favorite Arturo Chacon-Cruz was the surprise of the night, with his confident, sure tenor presenting a grounded and heartrending performance of Macduff’s plaintive “Ah, la paterna mano.” Chacon-Cruz has grown in recent years, and one looks forward to the leading roles he will grow into for future seasons.
Special mention must go to chorus director Grant Gershon and the skilled singers of the LA Opera chorus. Macbeth has some glorious Verdi choral arrangements, from the witches to the banquet scene to the refugees’ harrowing “Patria oppressa,” and it was a genuine thrill to hear them all sung with such nuance and precision. Music director James Conlon has conducted more productions of Macbeth than any other opera, and his command and relish of Verdi’s lush, uncommonly dramatic music was palpable. Driving the brilliant musicians at a gallop, Conlon embraced the drama of Verdi’s score while masterfully accommodating the singers when necessary.
The set is a simple, stark, two-tiered stone construction, with downstage stairs and an upper battlement that is used effectively for the chorus. The Game of Thrones costumes place the proceedings in a generic ancient time, with Macduff’s muted plaid tunic the only hint of Scotland. The emphasis is on the music and the emotion. And in the expert hands of all involved, the production is a ravishing musical delight. I wish I could see it again … tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
135 N. Grand Ave., DTLA
Through Oct. 16