Chicago Opera Review: MACBETH (Chicago Opera Theater at the Harris)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 14, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


Nmon Ford (Macbeth) and Suzan Hansen (Lady Macbeth)  Photo Credit Keith Ian PolakoffShakespeare’s shortest tragedy becomes, appropriately, a 115-minute, one-act opera by Ernest Bloch, a dour offering first produced in 1910 at the Opera-Comique in Paris. An inventive local premiere by Chicago Opera Theater at the Harris Theatre in Millennium Park, this “lyric drama in seven scenes,” which employs Bloch’s English translation from Edmond Fleg’s libretto, pares the play down to basically Macbeth and his equally evil Lady. (Shakespeare’s deathless dialogue is restored wherever possible.) Aptly updated, their dirty deeds are illustrated from all sides by a constantly commenting video display, both closed-circuit and splayed out in an eloquent backdrop designed by Sean T. Cawelti (it was not without a glitch on opening night). It’s Game of Suzan Hansen (Lady Macbeth)  Photo Credit Keith Ian PolakoffThrones meets The Scottish Tragedy, with pitiless close-ups on the protagonists, their arias unimpaired by melody or privacy.

Andre Mitisek’s concentrated staging is played against a constricted set, with a long, revolving table center stage, white curtains on the side, and the all-showing video backdrop churning changing vistas in the back. Suitably ramped up by conductor Francesco Milioto leading the Chicago Sinfonietta and the huge Apollo Chorus (both performing off stage), Bloch’s foreboding and portentous score reflects every dark passage in Shakespeare’s saga of serial slaughter. Soaring but seldom sweet, the score varies only in intensity, its default drive being a somber and gloomy song set, as sepulchral as Wagner on a bad night. In contrast, Verdi’s infinitely more melodic Macbeth comes from a different universe as well as century.

Nmon Ford (Macbeth)- Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff.Young and almost blank-faced with the banality of evil, Nmon Ford brings a powerful baritone to the thane-turned-king-turned-tyrant. He neglects no opportunity to depict the reluctant killer’s evolution from a dupe of three witches to a seasoned and implacable exterminator, his reign of crime based on his all-permitting conviction that life is “an empty tale, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Though almost hard to credit, the music wanes as bleakly as the soliloquy.) Suzan Hanson self-destructs much sooner as Lady Macbeth, an opportunistic murderer whose felonies can’t outpace her guilt. Wielded by the busy witches (Brittany Loewen, Helen Wyatt and Cassidy Smith), the cameras record every anguish as accurately as the notes.

Suzan Hansen (Lady Macbeth)  Photo Credit Keith Ian Polakoff.

Completing this chamber opera in much truncated roles are Joe Shadday’s driven depictions (Banquo, Duncan, Malcolm, a servant, an assassin) and Paul Scholten as a murderer and the ultimately triumphant Macduff. Providing a powerful condemnatory context for Bloch’s angry music, the vast chorus seethes and rages in the darkness that flanks the Harris stage.

Nmon Ford (Macbeth)- Photo Credit Keith Ian Polakoff

This deliberate downer is, wisely or accidentally, not a note longer than it needs to be. Its well-earned grimness can’t prevent it from being a supple showcase for five impressive actor-singers. Their power to persuade feels even more palpable in this very cinematic and electronically probing production.

photos by Ian Polikoff

Chicago Opera Theater
Harris Theater for Music and Dance
205 E. Randolph St.
scheduled to end on September 21, 2014
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