Verdi, Worth His Weight in Popcorn

(Karin Cooper - Karin Cooper)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 14, 2007

Verdi's "Macbeth" is generally considered the operatic equivalent of a B-movie. It is fun, and flawed, and full of premonitions of the great works of his middle career, which would begin only a few years later with masterpieces such as "Luisa Miller" and "Rigoletto." But "Macbeth" has its partisans who insist that it is a secret treasure. The production the Washington National Opera opened Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center Opera House will incline you to agree.

Verdi loved Shakespeare, but for his first foray into Bardic territory he chose what might be considered the great B-list tragedy among Shakespeare's plays. To the composer, the bloody tale of ambition suggested not so much a great dramatic poem about sound and fury signifying nothing, but more a cavalcade of bizarre and fantastic scenes. His approach to converting the Elizabethan tragedy into Italian opera -- two of the rare artistic forms that have always been highbrow and lowbrow at the same time -- was to biopsy the most rabid bits, and grow the cultures under the peculiarly lurid light of romanticism. He accused himself of an essentially schoolboy vision when he wrote to his librettist: "If we can't make something great out of it, let us at least try and do something out of the ordinary."

There is enough out of the ordinary about the opera and about director Paolo Micciche's busy but clever production to make the current show worth any opera lover's time. Conductor Renato Palumbo gets a vigorous and quick-witted response from the orchestra, and the chorus is formidable in its clarity and power. The witches cackle with glee, and the assassins, like so many villains in Verdi, sound deliciously like men on their way to a picnic. The principal singers have voices more than adequate to the vocal demands, and the design and direction are straightforward and sympathetic to Verdi's fast pace and emotional excess.

Micciche uses projections and scrims to set the scene. There is a brief suggestion -- not followed up -- that the action will take place in a contemporary city. Perhaps it's New York, and perhaps those square, bulky forms are the twin towers. But Verdi draws us back to old Scotland, and Micciche follows, with designs that suggest castles rooted in the ground, huge cathedrals and other vaguely defined Gothic spaces.

The virtue of projections and scrims is that you can put a lot of visual texture on the stage without the huge cost of building sets. But they have two big problems. There is nothing to limit the director, and most directors tend to go overboard with visual data. And a scrim is still a barrier, no matter how thin. There is no substitute for seeing and hearing a great singer in the same room with you, and while scrims don't dampen the sound much, they do sap some of the psychological energy of the singer's presence. Many of the best bits of this "Macbeth," unfortunately, happen behind thin screens -- and the movement of those screens is often distracting.

But Micciche and his designers have focused their visuals on a collection of coherent images. A Gothic rose window grows huge, fractures and explodes, taking on phantasmagorical energy. A crown becomes a cage for the newly minted but illegitimate king. Lady Macbeth wanders in a deep-red world of dendrites and neurons that suggest her inner bloody-mindedness.

"Macbeth" is focused on its leading baritone and soprano, a rare opera in which the tenor is really an afterthought. The great tenor aria is given to Macduff, sung with force though not much subtlety by John Matz, and it doesn't come until the last act. But Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are roles full of perverse charisma and high dramatic possibilities, and baritone Lado Ataneli and soprano Paoletta Marrocu captured most of them.

Marrocu's voice is rather like a clarinet, fleet in motion yet capable of piercing energy. She was an exciting presence in ensembles, but one wished for more bottom-heft in her voice, and more inwardness in her interpretation. Marrocu has steel in the voice, and she is a competent actress, but you never really feel this Lady Macbeth is ever alone with herself.

Ataneli, whose voice is sturdy but not striking, brings everything you would want to the part -- but not a shade more. A bit of a tenor's edge in his sound would clear things up nicely, but for that you'd have to find a different singer. And Ataneli's acting is blunt. Macbeth takes one small step toward what he assumes will be greatness -- murdering the king -- and then loses his soul and peace of mind piecemeal. Ataneli captured the basic intensity of Macbeth's ambition, but not the slow unraveling of his humanity.

But one hates to quibble. In the current staging, which uses the exciting additions to the score Verdi made in an 1865 revision, you hear the summit of a kind of opera the composer would (mercifully) begin exorcising from his style. It is swift and brutal and full of beans. It was a different musical and dramatic world than the one Verdi would end up in, but it's a world worth a visit. "Macbeth" is rarely done, and while it may be a B-movie opera, this is definitely a B-plus production.

Macbeth will be repeated tonight and Thursday evening, Sunday afternoon, May 23 and 29 and June 2. For information, visit or call 212-295-2400.

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