Eric Barry as Macduff (behind candelabra), Nadja Michael as Lady Macbeth and Greer Grimsley as Macbeth.
Photos by Karen Almond
Macbeth (Greer Grimsley) hears from the Third Apparition (Wyatt Larsh, in crown), surrounded by witches.
Below:The ultimate power couple – Macbeth (Greer Grimsley) and Lady Macbeth (Nadja Michael).
Opera San Antonio / Macbeth, by Giuseppe Verdi
This cauldron bubbles nicely
Banquo (Nathan Stark), about to be murdered, addresses his son (Wyatt Larsh).
September 9, 2017
When the curtain came down on
Opera San Antonio’s memorably
strong production of Giuseppe Verdi’s
Macbeth on Sept. 8, the Tobin Center
audience might well have wondered
why this taut Shakespearean drama
isn’t staged more often.
One reason might be the heroic
demands placed on the two leads: The
roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth
require enormous power, stamina and
dramatic acting chops. In the Macbeth
of Greer Grimsley and (with some
qualifications) the Lady Macbeth of
Nadja Michael, those bases were well
Another reason for the work’s relative
neglect might be the split personality
of the music. Opera San Antonio
follows standard practice in producing
Macbeth in the heavily revised version
of 1865, from Verdi's “late” period,
when he was near his peak in the
command of orchestral color, subtlety
of characterization and dramatic
structure. But some of the music from
the original 1847 version was carried
over into the revision, and in 1847 (the
composer’s “early” period) Verdi had
not yet escaped the strictures of the
highly formatted Rossinian style.
Some of this earlier music has a
galumphy, commonplace quality that
can test one’s patience. The martial
duet “Dove siam” for Macduff and
Malcolm in Act IV is a case in point.
But much of that earlier music is
remarkably advanced – the orchestral prelude, for example, and Lady Macbeth’s Act I barn-burner, “Vieni t’affretta,” in which she plans to incite her husband to kill the king and take his throne. And much of the 1865 music is as glorious as anything Verdi ever composed. The revised version of the chorus of refugees (“Patria oppressa!”) that opens Act IV has a depth of feeling that would not be out of place in the Requiem, and which is wholly missing from the original version.
Much of the dramatic effectiveness of this production stemmed from casting choices that were slightly outside the norms for the power couple. The title role is written for a baritone; Mr. Grimsley is a bass-baritone, and the extra heft in the low end lent his instrument a terrifying power, while his top glinted with steel. (From my seat in the third row, the shower of overtones was deliciously prickly in the ears.) He was able to modulate both qualities, though, so that his character’s moments of weakness and uncertainty also came across clearly.
Lady Macbeth is written for a dramatic coloratura soprano; Ms. Michael owns a big luxury liner of a voice – sumptuous and buttery, and with plenty of dramatic thrust, but not easy to steer. Her control of pitch and volume was sometimes wanting, alarmingly so in “Vieni t’affretta,” whose daring leaps were executed with audible toil and trouble. But, hey, we’re talkin' Lady Macbeth here, not the Singing Nun. A bit of a frantic edge is hardly out of place. Both vocally and physically, Ms. Michael delivered a searing, intense performance.
The supporting cast hewed to a high level, with especially fine work from tenor Eric Barry, whose mountain-spring clarity made an attractive Macduff; and from bass-baritone Nathan Stark, whose warmth and honeyed tone projected a sympathetic Banquo. Verdi himself considered the chorus to be the third principal in Macbeth, and the chorus for this production, prepared by the indispensable Dottie Randall, filled the bill with crisp diction and, for the most part, precise ensemble.
There are good reasons why San Antonio Symphony music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing is in demand as an opera conductor from Berlin to Beijing. He maintained focus and a clear sense of direction all the way through, he gave full expression to Verdi’s bold coups de théâtre, and he was in command of both early and late Verdi styles. He was especially masterful in the big ensemble finales of Act I and Act II and in “Patria oppressa!” – all beautifully paced and shaped, with an intuitive sense of when to push the tempo and when to relax.
The stage direction of Crystal Manich was richly detailed – miraculously so in her work with the chorus of witches – and consistently trenchant.
The physical production, originally created for the Glimmerglass Festival with scenery designed by James Schuette and costumes by Mr. Schuette and Beth Goldenberg, sets the action in the early 20th century, possibly the years following World War I. The witches appear in the sort of dowdy but respectable attire that cleaning ladies of that period might wear on the bus, and the uniforms worn by the male principals suggest a Latin American military dictatorship. In Act III, Ms. Michael appeared with her blond hair tightly coiffed, calling Eva Peron to mind. In the other acts, with her hair down, she bore a certain resemblance to, um, well, Kellyanne Conway.
The final performance begins at 2 pm on Sept. 10 in the Tobin Center.