Don’t come looking for Shakespearean language in this opera. Instead, come to revel in the singing of an outstanding cast.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth has everything you could want in a thriller—ambition, treachery, witchcraft, riddles, swordfights, madness, sleepwalking, and, ultimately, justice—and Verdi’s Macbeth has all that plus beautiful music. It’s a big opera about big emotions, and one that Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) has been trying to program for decades. The current production proves more than worth the wait.
Don’t come looking for Shakespearean language in this opera (sung in English, using a translation by Jeremy Sams, with English supertitles)—instead, come to revel in the singing of an outstanding cast, innovative staging by Lee Blakely, and a great sense of atmosphere. There’s a reason Shakespeare’s Macbeth was the favorite of the Goth kids in the second season of Slings and Arrows, and this production captures the same spooky mood (overcoming a few odd moments, like Verdi’s inexplicably cheery music for the witches) that is one of the huge draws of the story. Plus, as I said before, it features some truly outstanding singing of music written by one of the titans of opera.
Robert Pomakov (Banquo) and Roland Wood (Macbeth) both have great voices and outstanding stage presence and make such a strong impression in their early appearances that I was afraid Lady M. might be overshadowed by them. I needn’t have worried. As the only leading female character on a stage usually full of men, Julie Makerov proves more than capable of holding her own. She makes a particularly strong impression in the banquet scene (trying to distract Macbeth’s men by leading them in a drinking song, while Macbeth is tormented by the ghost of the murdered Banquo, which only he can see) and the sleepwalking scene, the latter of which is as effective as anything I’ve seen on any opera stage. Matthew Plenk (Macduff) has less to do, but made a strong impression in the most tuneful aria of the evening, a lament for his murdered wife and children.
The dominant feature of Alex Eales’ set is a sectioned wooden wall dividing the thrust stage from the proscenium, which looks like it might well belong in a medieval castle. Because different parts of the wall can be moved independently, it allows the creation of a variety of spaces encompassing different parts of the stage, while scenery can be moved into place behind it. This facilitates quick scene changes, which are also facilitated by limiting the set to simple pieces that can be moved quickly. Shakespeare would have approved of this approach to staging, and the simplicity of the sets is also entirely appropriate for the mood of this work. Mark Bouman’s costume designs would not be out of place in a Game of Thrones episode and underline the brutality of the world in which the story takes place. Finally, Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design plays a key role in establishing the mood of each scene, and makes the most of the possibilities of the wall, which includes sections that can be either opaque or translucent, depending on how they are lit. | Sarah Boslaugh
Macbeth will be performed by the OTSL through June 26 at the Loretto-Hilton Center (130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves, MO 63119) in repertory with La Boheme, Shalimar the Clown, and Ariadne on Naxos. Single tickets are $25 to $125, with various subscription packages also available. Further information is available from the OTSL website.
Photo: Ken Howard