Admirable Verdi’s Macbeth inaugurates the 2021-2022 season of Lyric Opera of Chicago

United StatesUnited States Verdi, Macbeth: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago / Enrique Mazzola (conductor). Civic Opera House, Chicago, 17.9.2021. (JLZ)

Sondra Radvanovsky (Lady Macbeth) and the company (c) Ken Howard

Director – Sir David McVicar
Sets – John Macfarlane
Costumes – Moritz Junge
Lighting – David Finn
Choreographer – Andrew George
Fight director – Nick Sandys
Chorusmaster – Michael Black

Macbeth – Craig Colclough
Banquo – Christian Van Horn
Lady Macbeth – Sondra Radvanovsky
Servant – Christopher Filipowicz
Macduff – Joshua Guerrero
Lady in Waiting – Mathilda Edge
Assassin, First Apparition – Anthony Reed
Second Apparition – Maria Novella Malfatti
Third Apparition – Denis Vélez
Malcolm – Matthew Vickers
Doctor – Rivers Hawkins

Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its 2021-2022 season with Sir David McVicar’s new production of Verdi’s Macbeth, which uses the 1865 ‘Paris’ version. The entire opera takes place in a nineteenth-century chapel created by set designer John Macfarlane: a bold gesture that sets the tone with its ubiquitous shape. Macfarlane previously contributed strong designs to Lyric Opera with a riveting Queen of Spades in the 2018/2019 season and a striking Elektra in the 2012/2013 season (the blood-spattered steps of the palace linger in one’s memory). In Macbeth, the chapel succeeds visually as a space to frame the action, and it is sufficiently expansive to make the scenes with the full company fit the stage.

The opening in the chapel may startle some as the witches emerge from those assembled in the pews. The sound of the witches’ chorus here was a bit diffuse, with the voices not blending as well as they did in Act III, when a version of the chapel is the backdrop for the witches’ cave. The rich choral textures that characterize these numbers should work well in both scenes, and it may be that the hand and arm gestures that accompany the opening chorus competed with the vocal lines.

Later, the chorus of assassins recruited to murder Banquo was particularly effective in the articulation of the text as the musical texture took shape to encompass the full male chorus before the fatal conclusion. The opening was memorable for Christian Van Horn’s solid performance of ‘Come dal ciel precipita’. Ryan Opera Center alumnus Van Horn commanded the stage, his ringing tone reinforcing the lines that hint at the dénouement.

In the title role, baritone Craig Colclough was equally effective in his impassioned interpretation of ‘Pietà, rispetto, amore’ in Act IV. Colclough sang the words of this critical aria with clarity and richness; his sense of line and dynamics was remarkable and contrasted with the more declamatory delivery he used earlier in the opera. It is worth seeing the production just to experience the baritone as he recognizes his character’s tragic flaws with proper emotion and dramatic power, yet remains persuasively lyrical.

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Macbeth (c) Ken Howard

Sondra Radvanovsky as Lady Macbeth gave the role the physicality and tone it requires. If the sound in the first half sometimes varied, the blocking of the famous brindisi (‘Si colmi il calice’) at the end of Act II supported Radvanovsky completely. She played the character with phrasing and articulations that suited the number masterfully, and nuances came through easily, with legato crescendos that fit the contour of the vocal line. As Banquo’s ghost taunted Macbeth to obsessive madness, Radvanovsky’s Lady Macbeth responded with apt astonishment and deft concern for the guests. Even when the guests fled and Macduff decided to leave the country, Lady Macbeth supported the action with her response to that defiance.

In the final act, Lady Macbeth is drastically different as her madness emerges in the obsessive cleaning that is an iconic part of the sleepwalking scene. Here Radvanovsky brought out the phrases that summarize the drama, a detail that is sometimes absent from other interpretations. She owned the stage with her musical and dramatic presence, and the subtleties of the music emerged clearly. Verdi demands much here, and Radvanovsky’s performance will long remain with me.

A similarly enduring memory is Joshua Guerrero’s soaring treatment of Macduff’s ‘Ah, la paterna mano’. He built on the aria’s structure with subtle rubato, and his supple tone held the audience’s attention. The bel canto elements had full voice with Guerrero in this elegant reading.

This was the first appearance of Enrique Mazzola in the pit as music director. He is familiar to Chicago audiences, especially from two stunning Lyric productions: Luisa Miller (in the 2019/2020 season) and I puritani (in the 2017/2018 season). His leadership of the orchestra was apparent from the start, and they responded well. At times, the excitement escaped some of the brass, as in the final act where the fugato that evokes the advance on Birnam Wood was imprecise. But like the over-amplified shouts in the climactic fight scene, this is a minor quibble in the context of the fine effort that defined the evening. All in all, it was an estimable and enthusiastic reading of Verdi’s iconic score.

James L. Zychowicz 

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