Sunday, November 25, 2007


Last night I saw Verdi's Macbeth, the first of his Shakespeare operas, at the S.F. Opera. The highlight was Thomas Hampson in the title role, looking almost gaunt but sublimely sexy and haunted and, at the end, ruined. After hearing the final aria, in which Macbeth recognizes that he will not be remembered with compassion, the words that came to mind were "supreme mastery of his instrument." Hampson's voice is rich, warm, and intelligent, expressing a huge range of emotion and yet always remaining inside the drama and the music.

The picture above, of a 19th-century painting by Théodore Chassériau of Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches on the heath, has nothing to do with the production. The witches in the opera, who number many more than three and form the chorus, were all dressed in red and pink contemporary fashions, all with red or reddish hair, and were occupied with sterotypical girly things while singing: one was painting her nails, one was hula-hooping, one carried a feather duster and wore her hair in curlers, etc. They were brilliant, but it got weirder. When we first see Lady Macbeth, she is chained by the waist to the top of a large cube, like a rabid dog. Duncan, the murdered king, wore a golden mask and was wrapped in a gold lame mummy bandages, with the body of a child. He looked like some kind of alien. The vision of Banquo's sons were children in white angel dresses with golden old-fashioned school satchels strapped on the their backs (this is a Swiss production so is that what Swiss schoolchildren still wear?), waving green branches.

Not to be too gory, but I wanted red blood when Macbeth emerged from murdering Duncan, but instead he was smeared with green slime. So was Duncan. Maybe he really was an alien? I have to work too hard to figure that one out. The cube was put to many clever uses, always emphasizing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's alienation from the others in their world, and the claustrophobia of their mental state, especially hers.

With a story as well known as Macbeth, I suppose there is a strong temptation to create a provocative production just to give people something to talk about and force us to see things in a new way. But although I like many elements of it, the production distracted me from the opera, which itself is an adaption of the original play. I would have liked a little more neutrality, to reflect on the transformation of the play into an opera.

If you'd like to catch a glimpse (sorry, no green slime in the preview), here's the SF Opera preview clip. I'm off to reread Shakespeare's original.

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