Sunday, October 16, 2016

A fervently sung and simmering dark Macbeth at LA Opera

It's difficult to overlook how a living great, who has carved out a long and illustrious operatic career, impacts the experience of a performance but Plácido Domingo has that effect. This performance of director Darko Tresnjak's LA Opera production of Verdi's Macbeth, the composer's first setting of a Shakespearean drama and the company's first, was sold out for a very good reason.

"Kindness, respect and honour will not grace my old age. They will not utter sweet words over my tomb. A curse will be my only epitaph".

So sings Domingo as Macbeth in "Pietà, rispetto, amore", Act IV's final big aria, as he learns that the English-backed Scottish insurgents are advancing. It is the most compelling and deeply moving moment of Domingo's performance as he utters words of which are antithesis to his legendary operatic status.

As Athanaël in LA Opera's 2013 production of Thaïs, Domingo impressed but here the indefatigable septuagenerian transcends even that. Domingo is not only remarkable for his vocal richness and staying power, he's an exemplary actor who portrays the dramatic conviction and understanding of both his character and music.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth and Ekaterina Semenchuk as Lady Macbeth
Amongst the assortment of vocal characteristics Domingo can muster, there's oil, oak and hints of onyx in his handsomely sung Macbeth who he depicts not with the cowardice that Lady Macbeth accuses him of, but a fragility and hopelessness see-sawing with determination. Aside from marginal thinning of the voice's upper range, the agile Domingo shows little sign of strain.

Alongside Domingo, soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk shares the stage with equal greatness. Together, Domingo and Semenchuk cement a truly convincing and broiling portrayal of a king and queen's desperate hold on power.

Vocally dark and solid with balsamic-like richness, Semenchuk conjures a brutally impressive brew of imperiousness, regality and vulnerability as Lady Macbeth. In a tender gesture of power-craving, she hugs the throne but also touchingly expresses great affection for her husband through subtle and affecting result. Semenchuk's power, control, range and register shifts all combine in an all-encompassing, compelling performance. Able to burst with ferocity and plunge into a firm coloratura, Semenchuk steers her character to the edge of madness in Act IV's "Una macchia è qui tuttora!" with a contrasting lightness of voice in a scene as she crisscrosses the stage that unmistakably resembles Donizetti's Mad Scene from his Lucia di Lammermoor of 1835, predating Macbeth by some 12 years.

Ekaterina Semenchuk as Lady Macbeth
They are joined by an excellent cast including steadfast, muscular and superbly controlled bass-baritone Ildebrando D'Arcangelo as Banquo (Roberto Tagliavini opened the season). Joshua Guerrero (who shared the role with Arturo Chacón Cruz ) is robust with a warm and ringing tenor as a brave Macduff and tenor Josh Wheeker shows  fruitful authority as Malcolm.

On the directorial side, not all Tresnjak's tricks pay off but the production enthrals and delves deep with psychological subtlety. Rat-tailed rodent-like body-suited witches squirm and crawl in dance, more and more brazenly stepping into seemingly haunt and overrun the Macbeth name. Oversized heads of kings cajole Macbeth under which slender-legged dancers prance and bob about. That pushes the foreboding prophesy to its limit but when the rat-like witches dance and cavort atop the cradles of seemingly charred devil-like babies whose eyes begin to glow, it draws laughs, possibly because it exceeds one's patience to understand the point of it.

Darkness is ever-lurking in Tresnjak and co-scenic designer Colin McGurk's hard-edged, steely setting featuring a three-part recessed linear edifice erected on a stepped platform with a concealed upper bridge. It's mausoleum-like weightiness becomes a perfect adjunct to the plot.

Where use of stage depth lacks, Tresnjak makes up for it with vertical interest as the rat-like witches climb the walls with the upper bridge put to good use, amongst which a chorus of dishevelled witches sing out their gnarly song. Even including both rodent-like and robed witches, Suttirat Anne Larlarb's period costumes adhere to an overall picture of masculine rule with Lady Macbeth standing out in distinguished satins.

Scene from LA Opera Macbeth
Matthew Richards's brooding lighting is cued exceptionally with the drama, creating much diversity in this one-set static construction over four acts and Sean Nieuwenhuis's projections of pagan symbols assist in demarcating the supernatural world of witches and seers.

Conducting, James Conlon revealed a thrilling tug o' war tension in the music but never did he strangle his singers. You can see and feel the undivided attention he gives to his cast as if always a micro-moment ahead, enabling him to calibrate the intensity he shapes from his musicians. The strings, in particular, vibrated with heat and intricacy and thunderous orchestral passages belted threateningly.

Finally, not laying enormous praise on the LA Opera Chorus would be unforgivable. Credit must be given to chorus director Grant Gershon for preparing the best sounding chorus I've heard here. Full of lusciously modulated harmony and vocal vigour, aided by drama that places the action on the forward stage, sound projection was faultless.

With this dark and simmering musically splendid Macbeth, LA Opera's season-opening has branded itself deeply on the record and signals an exciting year ahead.

Los Angeles Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Music Centre
Until 16th October.

Production photos: Karen Almond

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