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The New York City Opera'sMacbeth by Giuseppi Verdi

Some Background Facts About Verdi
Some Background Facts About Macbeth

The New York City Opera '97-98 season has gotten off to a sizzling start with its new production of Verdi's Macbeth. Lauren Flanigan has already created a buzz as a diva to be reckoned with since her debut (in 1991) as Musetta in La Traviata. Now, with her impressive Lady Macbeth she adds luster to her status as an actress with a commanding stage persona. Her dazzling soprano -- especially the coloratura passages -- makes audiences feel they've been touched by a golden glow. It's reason enough to see this Macbeth--whether you're a New York City Opera regular, a Metropolitan opera diehard or an opera Newbie eager to enlarge your musical drama experience by checking out first-hand why opera is attracting so many new fans.

 Star vehicle that it is, this Macbeth has other fine elements. For me, not the least of these is the direction by Leon Major. He has updated the setting -- (the uniforms and costumes suggest a between World War I and II time frame) -- yet remained faithful to Verdi's intention for an opera with all the force of Shakespeare's original but more concisely and clearly so. He has managed the large chorus scenes without a sense of crowding and, with the help of John Conklin's hard-edged sets, created a metallic and ominous landscape that strongly underscores the doomed ambition of the villainous pair around whom the plot turns and twists.

Conklin's set (and costumes) will undoubtedly not be to everyone's taste. Neither will Robert Wiezel's lighting which veers from being so dark that those in the rear of the orchestra and the top tiers probably can't make out who's singing to blazing splashes of neon turning the raked central platform into a hellish yellow and bloody red. My own companion for the evening, choreographer, Joan Eshkenazi, found the sets distracting -- "too angular and antagonistic to the music." While we disagreed about the set, we came up with the same report card for the key performers:

 Flanigan's "Lady"--powerful all the way through, including the crucial Act 3 sleepwalking scene.

Mark Delavan 's Macbeth -- more occasionally than uniformly excellent, with his best turn the Act 3 aria in which he laments that he will never know an honorable and affection-filled old age.

Kenneth Cox -- a generally fine Banquo

Alfredo Portillo's Macduff -- his unusually small tenor part was well worth the wait (he does not come on scene until Act 3). Addendum.: As an alert member of the opera newsgroup pointed out, he actually does make a brief appearance in Act 1 and gets to sing a few lines but it's his singing of a major aria that doesn't come off until Act 3. It should also be mentioned that Act 3 is Act 4 in some productions. --es That leaves the chorus and the orchestra (led by George Manahan). Both acquitted themselves admirably. The good performance by the orchestra, which has not reaped showers of praise in the past, gives further cause for optimism for the rest of the New York City Opera Company' s season.

 To conclude, Macbeth warrants a special recommendation for theater goers those who have never experienced opera. Its combination of the talents of two creative giants, a gorgeous musical score and the cutting edge staging make for an exciting and never boring three hours (including 2 intermissions).

For more opera information, check out our Internet Resources for Opera Fans and Newbies. It includes a link to the New York City Opera Web Site

Music by Giuseppe Verdi, 
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, based on the play by Shakespeare 
Directed by Leon Major 
Conducted by George Manahan 
Sets and costumes by John Conklin; 
Lighting by Robert Wierzel 
New York City Opera at the New York State Theater 
Lincoln Center (212/870-5613) 

Lauren Flanigan -- Lady Macbeth 
Mark Delavan -- Macbeth 
Kenneth Cox -- Banquo 
Michele McBride -- Lady in Waiting 
William Ledbetter -- Aide to Macbeth 
David Craig Starkey -- Duncan Alfredo 

Performance Schedule
Opening 9/11, 9/14 (mat), 9/18, 9/ 21 (mat), 9/26 
10/25 (mat), 10/30, 11/2 (mat), 11/07 
Reviewed 9/19/97 by Elyse Sommer

Some Background Facts About Verdi vis-à-vis Macbeth
Verdi was only 33 when he composed Macbeth in 1847. While he'd been a Shakespeare enthusiast since his teens, he was a realist dedicated to clarity. Thus Macbeth's supernatural elements and ambiguities posed a particular challenge which he met by putting drama and music on an equal footing. 

The current production marks the 150th anniversary of the world premiere in Florence which Verdi himself directed and rehearsed in order to insure his vision for a true music drama with the interpretation of the words as important as the musical quality of the singing. (This integration of drama and singing may remind musical theater students of why Rogers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma was hailed as a landmark. Unlike previous musicals all its songs were an organic extension of the show's story line). 

 The roles of the two leading players were originated by soprano Marianna Barbieri-Nini and baritone Felice Varesi. According to the program notes, Verdi drove his leads to near hysteria by rehearsing them right until curtain time. 

 In 1865, after numerous productions of the opera throughout Italy. Verdi did extensive rewrites for a Paris production . He expanded the opera with a new aria for the leading lady and a new scene for the Scottish exiles. These additions notwithstanding, the opera retained its austere dramatic center. While in the theater, many followed in actress Helena Modjeska's footsteps when (in 1888) she emphasized the sexual tie between her "Lady" and Macbeth, Verdi did nothing to overcome the complaint of some audiences about his opera "senza amore" (without love story). 

Macbeth was the first of three Verdi operas based on Shakespeare's works. The other two are Otello composed in 1887 and Falstaff, (based on The Merry Wives of Windsor as well as two other historical plays) composed in 1893. An aside regarding the latter, which is regarded as his comic masterpiece--it's currently running at New York's most modest and enduring operatic landmark, the tiny Amato Opera Theater in the East Village (319 Bowery Lane). 

 Some Background Facts About Macbeth' Place in Shakespeare's Oeuvre 
>In the context of its time, Macbeth's witches stirred their pot at about the same time as King James published a book on Demonology which led to the passing of more stringent laws against witchraft. (You might say, without the ripple effect in the American colonies, playwright Arthur Miller might have needed a different metaphor for The Crucible. ). 

The first production of the play was given at Hampton Court on August 7, 1606 before the above-mentioned King James. However, the popularly held belief that Shakespeare wrote the play to honor the King has been nay-sayed by others who feel it was aimed at showing the violence of the northern regions in order to help justify Queen Elizabeth's execution of Mary Queen of Scots. Be that as it may, it remains a play coveted by actors as a vehicle for displaying themselves at their dramatic best. 

 While there have been attempts to end the play with Macbeth and Macduff dueling offstage, the public's love of a good fight generally prevailed. One theatrical anecdote tells of Otis Skinner as Macduff narrowly missed beheading his enemy played by Edwin Booth. (No doubt the public's taste for fight scene has not been lost on the producers of the soon-to-open new musical, The Scarlet Pimpernel previewed here recently). 

The New York City Opera's staging of the opera within a more recent historic time frame) and with somewhat surreal sets has precedent in other modern productions of this and other of the Bard's plays. In 1952, for example, there was an opera production in which Macbeth first came on stage in an armored car; more recently, in a nonoperatic movie version of Richard III, Sir Ian McKellen played a Nazi-King. 

 According to Village Voice critic Michael Feingold's program notes for the NYCO Macbeth, the play known in theatrical circles as "the Scottish play" is viewed by many in the business as "cursed" as evidenced by illness and backstage accidents which have plagued many a production and have led to all manner of superstitious mantras to ward off the alleged curse. 

 Macbeth though still much quoted is currently given fewer theater productions than many of Shakespeare's other plays. However, for anyone who wants to see the play instead of or in addition to the current operatic drama, there is a Macbeth minus Verdi's gorgeous music currently running at a modest off-off-Broadway venue (Basic Theatre Company at the walker Street Theatre, 46 Walker Street. (212/479-7833). It's not an all-star, top-of-the-line production but it has gotten some good word-of-mouth and is modestly priced ($15).

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