In Handy Church Ruin, Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’ Finds Its All-Purpose Setting

Trouble brewing: The witches toil, burn, and bubble in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Verdi’s ‘Macbeth.’ (Photos by Michael Cooper)

TORONTO — Hard to believe that Macbeth was regarded for much of the century following its 1847 premiere as less-than-top-flight Verdi. Now the master’s darkly vigorous 10th opera (almost always heard in the 1865 revision) is firmly in the repertoire for reasons that were apparent at the April 28 opening of a run in the Four Seasons Centre under the auspices of the Canadian Opera Company.

The production by David McVicar, first seen in 2021 at Lyric Opera of Chicago, unfolds not on a blasted heath or in the interior of a castle but in a roofless and apparently ruined church that is reconfigured through the evening to represent various locales, including a banquet hall, a witches’ cavern, and a battlefield. 

Quinn Kelsey as Macbeth in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of ‘Macbeth.’

The ecclesiastical orientation of the set by John Macfarlane was stressed at the beginning as the witches (Verdi stipulates a three-part chorus rather than Shakespeare’s three Weird Sisters) were seated in the pews wearing basic black and required to thrust their hymnals this way and that in keeping with the rhythmic music. At one point, Macbeth finds himself ripping pages from a Bible. During the ballet sequences, we get something like a zombie apocalypse.

While this might sound like easy anti-religious point-making, it is true that Verdi’s librettists invoke the Almighty as an agent of vengeance and source of triumph more than does Shakespeare. And, of course, the title character and his wife undertake their bloody campaign in defiance of a moral code the church can plausibly be said to represent.

Less explicable was an array of 19th-century costumes with no clear national character. Only Macduff sported a tartan. Perhaps you had to be Scottish (as are both McVicar and Macfarlane) to understand the wardrobe philosophy. But I for one am tired of boots and greatcoats.

At any rate, the surroundings and textiles did not interfere with the tragic message of the opera or the efforts of singers to embody their characters. Quinn Kelsey brought a handsome yet suitably anguished baritone to the title role (which he was, rather surprisingly, performing for the first time). We felt the ruthlessness of the tyrant but also recognized the regret that makes him a figure of sympathy as well as revulsion.

Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Lady Macbeth in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of ‘Macbeth.’

The Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska, standing in for the originally announced Sondra Radvanovsky, was bold enough in sonority to realize Verdi’s famous demand for roughness in the role. Indeed, she seemed a nice match with her husband. If her introductory two-part aria was less than perfectly steady, this could probably be attributed to opening night-itis. No reservations applied to the resonant Turkish bass Önay Köse as Banquo, or to the Canadian tenor Matthew Cairns as Macduff, whose treatment of “Ah, la paterna mano” — ideally balancing bel canto flow and rugged pathos — earned the biggest ovation of the night. Canadian soprano Tracy Cantin made a firm contribution as the Lady-in-Waiting.

The COC Chorus as prepared by Sandra Horst was strong in Act IV with all hands on deck. The witches on their own seemed a little light. Speranza Scappucci, who made headlines last year as the first female Italian to conduct an opera at La Scala, drew consistently positive sounds from the COC Orchestra. Here was leadership that gave full value to the lyricism, rhythmic vitality, and color of the score.

A few more notes on McVicar’s work as director: In addition to the witches, there were three creepy children stalking the stage who looked like invaders from a nearby production of The Turn of the Screw. During the ballet, they participated with the Macbeths in a dumb show that appeared to have something to do with a stillborn child. They were also seen in the final moments approaching Fleance, who is presumably the next victim of their supernatural malice.

A scene from ‘Macbeth’ at the Canadian Opera.

Rather than find a reason for these and other inventions, I am inclined to ask why the creative team felt the need to tamper with one of the most elementally atmospheric of all operatic (and, keeping in mind the source, theatrical) settings. While McVicar is far from the most eccentric director on the scene, he might in this case have achieved more with less. 

Macbeth continues through May 20 (for tickets and information, go here). Liudmyla Monastyrska, the Ukrainian soprano noted for stepping in for Anna Netrebko in 2022 in a Metropolitan Opera production of Turandot — and taking her bow draped in a Ukrainian flag — will sing Lady Macbeth in the last three performances.