Scottish with a little Z

Zombies are everywhere.  Brad Pitt, Jane Austen novels, Homeland Security… and now Long Beach Opera.  I’ve never quite connected with the zombie obsession, but LBO’s Macbeth is the Goldilocks of z-ification:  their production of Ernest Bloch‘s 1909 opera is just right.

Danielle Marcelle Bond, Doug Jones, Nandani Sinha and Nmon Ford (Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff)
Danielle Marcelle Bond, Doug Jones, Nandani Sinha and Nmon Ford (Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff)

The hallowed Shakespeare play is nothing if not bloody, so it took only a moment to take in and accept the red-stained props and costumes, the ghoulish makeup worn by most of the cast, and the strange, dead look in the eyes of several of the characters.  The witches are especially creepy, with almost constant writhing and jerking motions that present them quite convincingly as prescient automatons of doom.

But it works — this adaptation of Bloch’s rarely-performed work combines characters and cherry-picks sections to build a one-act, seven-performer show that stretches to 110 minutes of almost unrelenting intensity.  It’s quite a ride.  The original cast of seventeen was whittled down to just seven, and the brunt of this reorganization of labor falls upon baritone Robin Buck (Macduff, Murderer) and tenor Doug Jones (Banquo, Duncan, Servant, Malcolm, Murderer), who performed their duties with dramatic agility and fine voices.  Although efforts to follow the multiple roles might leave you wishing for a plot map, the overall effect is that of a roiling kettle of vice, greed, sedition and decay, with Macbeth and his bride at dead center.

Long Beach Opera - Nmon Ford and Suzan Hanson in Bloch's 'Macbeth" 2013
Nmon Ford (in his “crown”) and Suzan Hanson showed the intense connection shared by the Macbeths. (Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff)

This pivotal relationship is played by Nmon Ford and Suzan Hanson, who both look as marvelous as they sound — no zombie makeup for them.  They’re dressed well, clearly satisfied with themselves as sovereigns of their domain, and their lust for each other is only outpaced by their lust for more power.  From the start, “she wears the pants”, with Macbeth sporting a youthful swagger and cockiness, but obviously dependent on his wife for, among other things, courage and instruction.  Ford and Hanson’s mildly May-December casting (and her glam makeup, which added several years) gives additional strength to this dynamic, as she manipulates and goads him into the central murder.  But once he becomes king, Ford’s portrayal evolves, showing Macbeth drunk with his own power, and there is a moment after he dons the stolen crown that he takes violent hold of both his queen and his sense of self, trying desperately to prove to both that finally, he’s the boss.  This shift is beautifully played by Hanson, who looks shaken and unsure for the first time as she struggles to regain both her composure and her dominance.  It is a startling precursor to the unraveling that leads the queen to suicide later, and shows off how Hanson’s subtle acting is most powerful in quiet moments when she speaks volumes with a cocked head or flick of a hand. The play is a tale of politics, murder and sorcery, but it is too often played as a caricature of itself.  It was deeply satisfying to see such rich characterizations, particularly in an operatic production, where the music might find itself overshadowed by the bard’s complex story.

Let’s do talk about the music.  Ernest Bloch was a powerhouse composer in his day, deeply respected and influential, but his legacy has been weakened by wartime politics and the popular misapprehension that he only wrote temple music for works otherwise Jewish-themed.  Although he was a contemporary of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, his aesthetic leans more toward the Neo-romantic, with rich elements of Wagner and even Mussorgsky, creating music firmly rooted in traditional tonality, yet commanding plenty of the chromaticism associated with these composers and even Debussy.  This is Bloch’s only opera, written in his twenties, and the piece has had a rather tragic history: performed several times in Paris in 1910-11 (during a period where Verdi’s Macbeth was fairly out of fashion), it was shelved until 1938, where it was slated for performance in Naples, but halted by Mussolini’s anti-Semitic decree.  With a few European stagings in the 1950s, it was again performed in 2009 in London.  There have been a couple of student productions in the US, but this is the first professional production of the opera in this country.  From here it will go to Chicago Opera Theater  (artistic and stage director Andreas Mitisek‘s other home) in September 2014, and hopefully, this deeply affecting and very worthy opera will receive more performances in the future, finally take its rightful place in the repertoire.

Vocally, the show is well-cast, which is all the more important in a difficult space.  The singing was consistently good, and Bloch’s romantic sensibilities and powerful melodic lines were well-served by the performers.  Ford’s powerful voice is at its peak during his post-murderous rant and in the anguish he feels at the end, when he realizes he has lost both wife and crown.  Hanson’s voice is sexy and luxurious throughout, expressing a broad spectrum of emotion in full color.

The witches’ trio, played by soprano Ariel Pisturino and mezzos Danielle Marcelle Bond and Nandani Sinha, navigated their especially intertwined harmonies and wandering unisons with skilled voices that were well-matched in beauty and tone.  There is nothing small about these roles, and the three arguably stole the show with strange,  foreboding movements and haunting vocals.  They’re a pleasure to listen to, but you wouldn’t want to meet them in the woods!

The LBO orchestra was led by assistant conductor Benjamin Makino.  As the action was in the round, and the monitors were spaced around the perimeter, it gave the audience a nice chance to watch Makino in action: his fluid, even languid style was still very clear and in full command, and served the performance well.  The players were a little ragged at first, but once they got into their groove, the orchestra proved themselves dynamic and skillful (particularly the winds), performing with spirit, drive and good ensemble.

The stage orientation — with a long table at the center and dramatically lighted from beneath; chairs and side pieces at either end; the audience along either side; and the orchestra and chorus behind a scrim in the next room — was very effective dramatically, but did pose some acoustic challenges.  While Bloch’s melodies are full of astonishing lyricism, they are, like many of his contemporaries, rooted in overtly speechlike rhythms and contours, and would add difficulty for the cast members on any stage.  In this space there were moments when individual lines, particularly at the lower ends of each performer’s range, were not entirely clear, whether or not their backs were turned to our section of the audience.  The chorus’s rich and dramatic parts were provided by the Long Beach Camerata Singers, and what we could hear was well-sung and well-executed.  (It appeared that the sound system that should have helped us hear them was phasing in and out.)  Beyond the sound dilemma, however, the space worked well for the storytelling.

This new adventurous chapter in LBO’s ongoing mission to recreate operatic experience is a notable success, and hopefully heralds some new interest in work of this master composer.  We look forward to hearing more Bloch, and to seeing more Shakespearean opera performed with such indelible dramatic flair.

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