Heartbeat Opera’s Lady M puts a new spin on Shakespeare and Verdi

United StatesUnited States Verdi, Lady M: Soloists, Band / Daniel Schlosberg (conductor). Heartbeat Opera, Baruch Performing Arts Center, New York, 14.3.2023. (RP)

Lisa Algozzini (Lady M) © Russ Rowland

Band: Daniel Schlosberg (piano), Pauline Kim (violin), Paul Wonjin Cho (clarinet), Samuel George (trombone), Mika Godbole (percussion), Nicoletta Todesco (guitars)

Adaptation – Jacob Ashworth and Ethan Heard
Musical director and Arrangements – Daniel Schlosberg
Libretto adaptations – Andrea Maffei
Director – Emma Jaster
Scenic design – Afsoon Pajoufar
Costume design – Beth Goldenberg
Lighting design – Oliver Wason
Projection design – Camilla Tassi
Sound design – Michael Costagliola
Electronics and Live processing – Gleb Kanasevich

Lady M – Lisa Algozzini
Macbeth – Kenneth Stavert
Banquo – Isaiah Musik-Ayala
Sisters – Samarie Alicea (acting)/Victora Lawal (singing), Taylor-Alexis Dupont, Sishel Claverie

What to do when the opera company to which you have given your life’s blood undergoes a seismic shift? Either you throw in the towel, or you keep producing opera the way you want to by retooling the classics, commissioning new works and working with colleagues who brim with creativity and energy. Jacob Ashworth, the company’s new artistic director, chose to stick with it.

The changes were all good things, however, and give some indication of the impact that Heartbeat’s vital and edgy approach to opera has had. Ethan Heard and Louisa Proske, Heartbeat’s co-founders and co-artistic directors, have simply moved on. Heard has become the Associate Artistic Director of Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, while Proske is now the Associate Artistic Director and Resident Director at Oper Halle, Germany.

Lady M, a rework of Verdi’s Macbeth, shows Heartbeat at its original and unorthodox best. Originally presented as an online fantasia of Verdi’s Macbeth during Heartbeat’s Virtual Soirées in 2020, Lady M was adapted for the stage by Ashworth and Heard for the company’s 2023 Spring Festival. Andrea Maffei supplemented Piave’s original libretto with additional text and lines from Shakespeare’s play.

The latter, in particular, added another dimension to the action. Shakespeare’s words not only anchored Lady M to its original source, but they also permitted the actors and audience alike to savor some of the play’s unforgettable lines.

As the title suggests, Ashworth and Heard put Lady Macbeth under the lens. Their version shears characters and streamlines the plot. Lady M, Macbeth, Banquo, the three Sisters and King Duncan’s son (played by one of the sisters) are the only characters in the story, unless you include the band members who venture from the pit to the stage on occasion.

Emma Jaster updates the action to the present time. There’s a corporate spin to Macbeth’s ascent to power: he celebrates becoming CEO of Cawdor, but his sights are on the throne of ScotiaX. A large table is the main stage piece, with a bar and stools off to the side of the stage.

The table serves as both the bed on which Duncan is murdered and his bier. Black feathers strewn upon it foreshadow danger as well as doom. The scene of Lady M’s triumph is transformed into a man cave of sorts where Macbeth can obsess over political developments on his laptop; and then a yellow sarcophagus where Banquo’s body lies behind panes of glass.

Lighting and projections play a major role in creating place and atmosphere. A simple, circular neon light is used to create mesmerizing images. The rear of the stage is hung with white cords that facilitate the movement of the cast and set pieces. Grainy black and white film shows scenes of destruction, as well as Birnam Wood advancing as the Sisters foretold.

If originality reigned in the concept and the staging, it triumphed in Daniel Schlosberg’s musical adaptation of Verdi’s score. His imagination seems to have no bounds. The spirit of Verdi is ever present in the colorful orchestrations for a handful of instruments augmented by an electric piano. Schlosberg’s subtle use of reverb adds mystery to the Sisters’ utterances and terror to Lady M and Macbeth’s mental deterioration.

Whether stalking the stage or cajoling her husband to kill Duncan, Lisa Algozzini’s Lady M was bold, brittle and fearless. Only when her fate was sealed did her veneer crack. Algozzini soared through the vocal challenges of the role, capturing both the sparkle in the Brindisi and the terror in ‘Una macchia è qui tuttora!’ as she tried to rid herself of that damned spot.

As Macbeth, Kenneth Stavert’s singing was forthright and commanding in a corporate executive sort of way. Attired in crisp business attire, his Macbeth was just a man in a suit, until the Sisters’ prophecy and his wife’s ambitions goaded him into action. In this telling of Macbeth, Stavert’s vanquished Macbeth recedes into the background as Lady M takes center stage.

Samarie Alicea, Taylor-Alexis Dupont, Sishel Claverie (Sisters) © Russ Rowland

It is not all modern glitz and glamour, however, as the Sisters – Samarie Alicea, Taylor-Alexis Dupont and Sishel Claverie – have an earthy vibe to them. At this performance, Victoria Lawal sang from the side of the house while Alicea appeared on stage, as the latter was unable to sing. Isaiah Musik-Ayala’s long-haired, seemingly all-knowing Banquo is similarly timeless. Cloaked in mystery, they gave the most nuanced performances in the show.

Rick Perdian

1 thought on “Heartbeat Opera’s <i>Lady M</i> puts a new spin on Shakespeare and Verdi”

  1. It’s unbelievable what all of you have accomplished with this opera. It almost seems to me to be like the AI, artificial intelligence of the opera world. I was reading the article without my glasses, so I want to go over again, but from what I can understand you’re really doing something really great with the interpretation of Verdi‘s opera.


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