Monday, November 19, 2007

MACBETH at the San Francisco Opera

I had experimented with some clever titles for this post. However, there is so much controversy surrounding the new production of Macbeth at the San Francisco Opera that I decided that the direct approach was the best one. I had all sorts of early warning before going over to the War Memorial Opera House yesterday afternoon, but I did my best to keep an open mind that would be prepared to receive anything.

So let me start with a few positive observations. I really liked the way in which Massimo Zanetti conducted Verdi. There are a lot of sharp contrasts in Verdi's music, and Zanetti knew how to execute them without blowing them out of proportion. He also knew how to keep things moving, even when all action freezes for the sake of the music. This was his San Francisco Opera debut; and, while Verdi is far from my favorite composer, I would certainly appreciate the opportunity to hear more of his work.

Also, let me go on record (for a change) agreeing with Joshua Kosman's Chronicle review stating that Thomas Hampson's performance of Macbeth is the high point of the entire affair. I was prepared for this after I heard him participate in the "Insight Panel" that the Opera organized a few evening before the first performance. His comment was that opera, particularly traditional "grand" opera, is not about plot; it is about understanding the nature of the characters who are enmeshed (my word, not his) in the plot. This is what extended arias (and sometimes duets or even larger ensembles) bring to the whole affair. This is not a particularly earthshaking observation. However, the point is that Hampson understands it at the gut-level of his own performance technique; and the way in which he applied it to the character of Macbeth made the entire production worth seeing. This is particularly true in Verdi's most important departure from Shakespeare. Rather than setting the "Tomorrow" monologue, he set an "invented" text by Francesco Maria Piave (as in Rigoletto, Traviata, and many of the other Verdi war-horses), in which Macbeth speculates on how he will be remembered. All this happens before he learns of his wife's death, after which the whole "Tomorrow" speech collapses down to a single line of recitative.

This replacement has interesting dramatic implications. Dispensing with the Aristotelian "arc," Shakespeare puts Macbeth on a direct line of descent, which culminates in that monologue of unfeeling nihilism. Piave (perhaps with input from Verdi or, for all I know, the first baritone to sing Macbeth) decided that, at the end of his line, he should reveal at least a glimmer of humanity; and Hampson was, in many ways, just the right kind of performer, in terms of both voice and stage presence, to work that glimmer for all it was worth. Given the context of the rest of the performance, it was an extremely welcome moment.

This brings me to the down-side of the performance. By all rights Lady Macbeth needs to be as strong as Macbeth, if not, out of a sense of duty to Shakespeare, stronger. Georgina Lukás brought a lot of physical strength to her performance. Unfortunately, it seemed to interfere with her singing on pitch. In the few passages where she was singling along with Hampson, both her pitch and the blend of their voices were fine; and, for the rest of the performance, it sounded as if she could not hear the orchestra. (One of my friends told me not to rule that out as an explanation, claiming that there are a lot of strange things about the Opera House acoustics.) Another explanation may be that the staging conceived by David Pountney and executed by Nicola Raab demanded so much from her that her voice ended up taking a back seat in the overall production values.

Those production values were, indeed, extremely busy; so I would certainly be willing to forgive Lukás for being preoccupied with so many other things. However, to the extent that the resulting production threw in everything but the kitchen sink (such as hula hoops and typewriters), we have the ask the cui bono question: Who benefitted from all of that excess? Many felt that Tannhäuser was excessive without benefit, and I suppose the fact that I ended up writing three extended posts about it entailed some level of excess on my own part. However, Graham Vick chose to throw a new light on an old story; and his new light, at least in my opinion, enhanced the way we think about the old story. Pountney was taking on an "old story" familiar to far more people than the Tannhäuser story; and, while a new light would have a benefit, it was far less clear just what the light was. For my part I am still not sure.

One thing that Pountney seems to have wanted was to have us pay a bit more attention to Fleance, Banquo's son who will begin a new line of Scottish kings. So we see the child squatting on the ground, front and center, during the final chorus during which Malcolm's troops celebrate their victory over Macbeth with a goose-step parade. I suppose this was Pountney's way of saying, "The story doesn't end here. It will not come to closure until Fleance's line begins." However, this did not matter very much to Shakespeare; and I am not sure that it mattered very much to me.

Needless to say, the goose-stepping was but one of many gestures designed to shock without any clear sense of the thoughts intended to be provoked. Consider another one of Verdi's departures from Shakespeare, his decision to delete Lady Macbeth's prayer to be "unsexed" to be better fit for the deeds that are about to ensure. There is a lot of eroticism in the relation between Macbeth and his wife; and, given her dominance in their engagements, there were times when I was wondering if I was watching an operatic setting of Double Indemnity. This would then raise the question of whether or not all of Macbeth's actions are manipulated; and, if so, by whom? My favorite question in any production of Macbeth, whether as play or opera, is whether the witches are agents or observers. In the scene in which Lady Macbeth received the letter from her husband, they are explicitly observers; but this point of view is not sustained with any real strength.

On the other hand Lady Macbeth is but one instance of the "shock of sex." Most of the other instances involve cross-dressing. Verdi may have written with Witches' chorus for female voices, but they shared the stage with men in drag. Similarly, Banquo's assassins are dragged-up to look like B-movie gun molls. Finally, in Macbeth's "dream scene," which takes place after his final meeting with the witches, having collapsed from seeing the future spirits of Banquo's line, his limp body is fitted into a red dress, supposedly to represent his own "ordination" as a Witch. I suppose this is one way to put a point of view on his subsequent aria of how he will be remembered, more as the Devil's agent than as his own man (pun sort of intended); but does the aria really need such a point of view?

Let me mention one last quirk. Upon entering the theater we saw a scene curtain with the image of the lower portion of a clock-face, except that the XII was where the VII usually is. As my wife knows, because I immediately mentioned it to her, my first reaction upon seeing this was "Time is out of joint." Was Pountney playing some sort of a game with us by deliberately cross-referencing another Shakespeare play? If so, then my cui bono question holds. I certainly hope it was not his intention to use the scene curtain to say, "Prepare to be shocked." After all, shock works best when one is not prepared for it!

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