Lyric’s ‘Macbeth’ bubbles with great singing

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(c) Robert Kusel

Baritone Thomas Hampson is Macbeth and soprano Nadja Michael is Lady Macbeth in Verdi's opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. 

Eye of newt and brilliant singing, wing of bat and stunning sets. Stir in fetching witches, add some oddly flavored staging and you have the steamy cauldron that is Verdi’s “Macbeth” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

In baritone Thomas Hampson as Macbeth and soprano Nadja Michael as his grasping, murderous wife, the Lyric’s season opener boasts two dramatic voices that could well make Verdi’s concise opera fly on a bare stage.

But far from barren, designer James Noone’s sweeping, steely sets embrace Verdi’s distillation of Shakespeare within a stark majesty that suggests both the curvaceous surfaces of architect Frank Gehry and the imposing monoliths of sculptor Richard Serra. Noone’s multiple, rotating structures can focus the viewer’s attention on a small stage, as in Lady Macbeth’s extended monologue as she awaits her curiously honored husband, or open into the splendid panorama of the fateful banquet-sans-Banquo.

Yet it almost doesn’t matter how Michael’s Lady Macbeth is framed. When this lithe, leggy singer is on stage, her intrinsic magnetism – abetted by costumer Virgil C. Johnson’s high-slit skirts — rivets the eye. And every moment of her singing feels like a musical and dramatic revelation.

Michael paints in vivid hues a woman who descends from overreaching to overwhelmed. From the opulence and power of her first prodigious soliloquy and her scolding challenge to the waffling Macbeth, through the distracted incantation of Lady Macbeth’s madness, she is electrifying.

And Hampson is in every detail her match, even if Verdi clearly found more appeal in Shakespeare’s venomous lady than in the thane who would be king. One hears in Hampson’s dark, tremulous baritone all the confusion, hesitation, fear, fury and ultimate resignation to his fate that define the arc of Macbeth’s ascent and plunge. One of Hampson’s finest moments evokes Macbeth’s consternation and terror in seeing Banquo’s ghost, the conjuration of his own blood-stained conscience.

That banquet scene also happens to be the one trouble spot in director Barbara Gaines’ otherwise imaginative and engaging approach to the tale.

Gaines, artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre making her opera debut, seems to lose her grip on dramatic logic at this critical juncture. Whereas Verdi keeps Shakespeare’s framework scrupulously in view, with Lady Macbeth trying desperately to reassure her guests and keep control of the situation as Macbeth reels from his vision of the murdered Banquo, Gaines creates something quite different.

She has an increasingly inebriated Lady Macbeth cavorting on the table top and generally behaving badly until she joins Macbeth in oblivion. The tension of the scene is lost, and so is the critical turning point where Lady Macbeth comes to understand how blood has begot blood and so begins the only retreat she can make – from reality.

On the other hand, Gaines’ witches are wonderful. Verdi didn’t settle for Shakespeare’s mere threesome, but seized the opportunity to write for a whole chorus of hags. Gaines maneuvers the Lyric’s raggedy, shaggy-haired, vocally splendid choristers not in a choral cluster but with energizing fluidity. They’re a happy sorority, about to ruin several lives.  

One who’s vanquished after some glorious singing is bass Stefan Kocan’s Banquo. One who survives is tenor Leonardo Capalbo’s Macduff, whose ringing aria of grief and vengeance nearly brought down the house on opening night.

From a purely musical standpoint, the Lyric’s new “Macbeth” is an unalloyed triumph, thanks in great part to conductor Renato Palumbo’s clear-sighted and wisely paced direction. The orchestra delivers Verdi’s vibrant score with equal parts of passion and finesse. In the end, it is sheer musical heat that keeps this cauldron boiling.        

Through Oct. 30. www.lyricopera.org. (312) 332-2244

    

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Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.