The Scottish play.There is always occasion for another production of the Scottish play, and on this occasion the occasion is Long Beach Opera's season-ending staging of the U.S. professional premiere of Ernest Bloch's 1906 operatization of—let's just say it and have done—Macbeth.
Bloch's Macbeth is yet another case of Long Beach Opera championing a piece whose obscurity seems, upon actually hearing the thing, inexplicable. The composer was all of 24 when he wrote it. It is his only opera. Its premiere engagement was in Paris at the Opera Comique in 1910, and it epitomizes much of what was best in then-contemporary music two brief years before this year's Centennial Birthday Boy, Stravinsky's Sacre de Printemps, kicked in the doors of the 20th Century. Bloch's influences are Wagner and, most particularly, Debussy. Much in Macbeth is clearly Bloch's own, but he draws enthusiastically on the burly brawling Debussy of La Mer and the Nocturnes. It turns out that that Debussy, given the chance and the proper material, might have been an even better operatist than the Debussy of Pelleas. Patron of the standard repertoire who are willing to embrace the secondhand Debussismo of, say, Madama Butterfly should be equally comfortable with the more interesting sounds of Bloch and his Macbeth.
LBO has made a habit of performing in spaces that are in, on, or closely bounded by the Pacific Ocean. The company has staged operas in a swimming pool (adjacent to the ocean), in the Aquarium of the Pacific, and deep in the hull of the Queen Mary. In September, LBO will be staging Peter Lieberson's King Gesar not only in Long Beach, but on Long Beach, 'round the campfire under the stars. For Macbeth, the maritime site in question is an empty passenger terminal at Berth 92 of the Port of Los Angeles. The playing area is a long thin slot of a space, the audience on risers on either side. A heavy wooden table dominates the center, additional abandoned furniture lies at either end, draped in blood-spattered fabric. The orchestra—a full-Romantic complement of roughly 40 players, with a large, unseen and unexpected Chorus—is secreted behind a scrim at one end of the room.
Most of the action plays out around, or atop, that central table, and it is there that we meet immediately with the three Witches (Ariel Pisturino, Danielle Marcelle Bond and Nandani Sinha - stay weird, sisters!). They are a sunken-eyed, hungry, spasmodically hissing crew, and they reappear throughout the evening, unseen by the other characters, to press along the inexorable working of their prophecy/curse.
Any Macbeth must first decide how capable and decent Macbeth himself is at the start: is he a good man who goes wrong or is he simply a dupe, a catspaw to the witches, his ambitious Lady, or both? Long Beach opts for the former: As portrayed with strength and lustre by Nmon Ford, Macbeth is a leader of men, initially content with his service to and regard from his King. Suzan Hanson is Lady Macbeth who here is not some overweening shrew but, at the outset, a beloved companion and equal to her husband, lively, intelligent, sexy, cherished, respected. The Macbeths have a relationship of trust and mutual admiration, until the Thane becomes King and a celebratory canoodle turns selfishly brutal, the first symptom perhaps of his ultimately fatal overreach.
Macbeth's error grows out of his strengths: The witches have promised that he will be king, but warned that he will not father future kings. Macbeth is able first to implement the witches' prophecy by the murder of Duncan. Power achieved, he foolishly attempts to thwart the remainder of the prophecy by the slaughter of perceived rivals such as Banquo (Doug Jones, also appearing as divers servants, etc.) and the Macduff family. Naturally, it does not end well: all Scotland rises against him, his wife runs fatally mad, and the witches return in the end to savor Macbeth's own death at the hands of Macduff (Robin Buck), all as they have foretold.
LBO artistic and general director Andreas Mitisek conceived and directed this production. The orchestra and chorus were subtly and propulsively led by Benjamin Makino, overcoming a difficult placement at the far end of an acoustically challenging room. The opera's three acts were run together without intermission, and events never flagged over the near two-hour running time.
The unanswered mystery of this Macbeth is why it is so little known. Bloch ultimately revised his original French libretto into English (the version heard here) and incorporated nearly all of the best known lines and speeches from the play, yielding an admirable adaptation that lands all of the requisite Shakespearean beats. A good Macbeth is a good evening in the theater, and this is assuredly a good Macbeth.
Two performances are still to come on June 22 and 23. The bad news is that those performances are reported as being sold out. Perhaps some helpful witches could get you in. What could possibly go wrong?
Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.
[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]