Verdi's "Macbeth" is arguably his first great opera. Inspired by Shakespeare, Verdi poured into it a wealth of glorious writing for soloists and orchestra. He left two versions of the opera, both of which have strong profiles.
The Washington Opera's second production of the season, the later of the two versions, opened last night in the Kennedy Center. Musically and dramatically, it is a serious letdown from the triumphant opening of "La Boheme." If fog and smoke were the sole criteria of a great production, this one would surpass all its rivals.
The sets, done by Zack Brown, whose work in "Boheme" was brilliant, were monolithic, making small what should have had space and giving far too many opportunities to various characters to substitute wall climbing for well-motivated acting.
The stage direction by David Alden was murky: the action of the witches' chorus was rambling and pointless; the banquet scene was unbelievably lifeless, leaving Macbeth and his lady to look as if they were improvising, as perhaps they were. The procession of kings brought out all too-corporeal figures in place of the shades that are called for. It is not only the memory of La Scala's magnificent production five years ago on the same Kennedy Center stage that makes this new production seem so unsatisfactory. At the Verdi Congress in Danville, Ky., a few years ago, an equally superior version was presented by the Kentucky Opera Company.
Musically the performance was little better than its staging. Make an exception for Juan Pons in the title role. His voice was supple and sonorous, and he gave credibility in scenes where he had little help from the surroundings. The same can be said for Antonio Savastano as Macduff, who sang his one lovely aria with sturdy beauty, which is about all Macduff gets to do.
But what about Lady Macbeth, the central character? Olivia Stapp sang the role with several voices. Her top octave has a kind of substance that cuts well through ensembles and makes a solid impact at the peak of her arias. But the lower octave is hollow, full of holes and with little carrying power. Her Brindisi made no impression at all, and her Sleepwalking Scene was equally unconvincing. Most of the time her acting looked more like an outer shell than the result of strong inner conviction.
The lighting was another drawback. Rather than underscoring the reasons for actions, it generally impaled the singers on spotlights, as in Macbeth's first long soliloquy, leaving far too much in shadow and in general adding to the feeling of murk that dominated the entire proceeding.
Both Banquo and Macbeth died offstage, despite a quite unnecessary engine of war that, having been dragged on for the final battle scene, might at least have been used to help dispatch the hero. The entire scene of Banquo's final address to his son, Fleance, flaccidly sung by Franco Federici, was cruelly minimized by the cramping set.
And now a few words of praise: the chorus sang beautifully; the orchestra played beautifully. But conductor Cal Stewart Kellogg, admired last season for his "Ballo in Maschera," took an inflexible line with "Macbeth." There are great expansions called for in the finale of the second act, of which he seemed obviously totally unaware. The whole evening was on a low level of non-inspiration.