Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

Opera Warhorses random header image

Hampson Transcends Quirky “Macbeth” in S. F. – November 18, 2007

November 23rd, 2007

San Francisco Opera is not quite at the trailing edge of productions contracted for by its former General Manager, Pamela Rosenberg. Her successor, David Gockley, is in a period where he benefits from the good choices for the company’s future that she made, while being able to distance himself from some of her commitments that have proven controversial or even unpopular.

Since he revealed San Francisco’s 2007-08 season, one of the announced productions stood out as being potentially troublesome. That was David Pountney’s conception of Verdi’s “Macbeth”, which, it turns out, San Francisco Opera agreed to purchase from the Zurich Opera, who first produced it in 2001. The prediction that the production would be controversial was not a hard call. After all, Zurich provided the world with a DVD souvenir of that production, starring Thomas Hampson and Paoletta Marrocu.

All of the opera’s scenes play out on a unit set, that will be described below, but a prominent feature of it is a large cube that is moved into various positions on the main stage. On its top and bottom and three of its sides, it is solid, but there is an interior space, usually glaring white, that can be seen by the audience through what would have been its fourth side. As the opera progresses, it becomes clear that the cube represents the inner world of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Here they write and talk to each other, perform murderous acts, engage in frenzied love-making, sleepwalk and die.

There are other worlds too. “Macbeth”, after all, deals with usurped power and the exercise of military might to restore the person deemed to be the legitimate sovereign. It also deals with the supernatural, through the agency of a chorus of witches. Pountney’s soldiers who fight to defend or overthrow Macbeth are conventional enough, but the witches are an entirely different animal.

Since the play (in English) and the opera libretto (in Italian) refer to the “weird sisters”, Pountney apparently asks the impolite question of what could be weirder than women going about pursuing their particular interests. Each of the witches is a woman chorister, dressed in red, but in a variety of fashions from pedal-pushers to cocktail dresses.

Each witch is constantly doing something “womanly” – one is contantly polishing her nails, one blows bubbles, one is digging with a garden trowel, one exercises with a hula hoop, one is continuously sizing things with a cloth tape measure, and on and on. I suspect that a perceptive feminist could give us abundant reasons why Pountney’s whole concept is an affront to women, but, I am prepared also to believe that he deliberately set out to raise any feminist’s ire.

[Below: the Witches of Verdi’s “Macbeth” each do their thing.  Edited image, based on a photograph by Terrence McCarthy, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

(In a pre-opera gathering, S. F. Opera’s Musical Administrator Kip Cranna put a celestial spin on the activities of the weird sisters, suggesting an analogy between the items carried by each witch and the “attributes” of the women saints – St Cecilia’s organ, St Ursula’s arrow, etc. – that you see decorating the statuary of medieval cathedrals. I cannot believe that Pountney intended anything of the kind.)

I doubt that seven years ago, many of San Francisco Opera patrons could have given a workable definition of “Eurotrash” and a number would not have even have ever heard the term. But now, like a recently acquired allergy, there is extraordinary sensitivity in San Francisco to unorthodox opera productions. That sensitivity grows more intense when one leaves the world of Wagner (where, I believe, the subject matter permits some fanciful thinking about how a production should look, as long as one does not change Wagner’s story) and enters the world of Verdi (where the specificity of time and place usually matters quite a bit).

Gockley is known to have canceled some of the productions to which Rosenberg had committed, so the question is how did this one make the Gockley cut? In my own mind, it seemed to have to do with securing Thomas Hampson to perform one of his great roles.

[Below: Thomas Hampson (Macbeth) with Scottish soldiers.  Edited image, based on a photograph of Terrence McCarthy, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Hampson, even though tutored early in his career in San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program, has not sung much in San Francisco. He did appear occasionally during the Lotfi Mansouri years. He had debuted here in 1990 in the roles of Ulisse and L’Umana Fragilita in Monteverdi’s “Ritorno d’Ulisse” with Susan Graham and Federica von Stade; had performed in the role of Valmont in the world premiere of Conrad Susa’s “Dangerous Liaisons” with von Stade and Renee Fleming; and in 1994, sang the title role in Ambroise Thomas’ “Hamlet” with Ruth Ann Swenson in the Orpheum Theatre during the season that San Francisco Opera had to abandon the opera house undergoing earthquake-required renovation.

Mansouri had signed Hampson and Fleming to return in the next decade respectively as Athanael and in the title role of Massenet’s “Thais”, almost three decades after Sherrill Milnes and Beverly Sills triumphantly performed the opera at the San Francisco War Memorial, one of several high points of the San Francisco Opera’s 1970’s “Massenet Revival”.

But Rosenberg, who inherited the “Thais” commitment from Mansouri, canceled it, reportedly on no other grounds than she did not like the opera. But contracts are contracts. Fleming could not be forced to sing in a different opera that Rosenberg liked, and, to the annoyance of much of the Opera Board, had to be paid anyway, without her singing at all. Hampson agreed to substitute the role of Figaro in Rossini’s “Barbiere di Siviglia”, co-starring Matthew Polenzani and Joyce Di Donato, but, at that stage of Hampson’s career, being cast as Figaro is hardly an effective use of the world’s reigning superstar dramatic baritone.

[Below: Thomas Hampson as Macbeth.  Edited image, based on a photograph by Terrence McCarthy, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Having contracted with Hampson to sing Macbeth, San Francisco Opera finally had the prospect of Hampson performing in a role that could really demonstrate his superb dramatic baritone, his peerless acting skills and his formidable stage presence. I had assumed that Hampson liked the Pountney production and that it was part of a package to get him.

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Cube

However, I was able to raise the issue with Gockley directly at a pre-performance gathering, who said that he had been prepared to substitute another production of Macbeth, but the problem was that he could not find an acceptable production that was available when he needed it. (In fact, a bit of my own research demonstrates that various productions of “Macbeth” were already scheduled for October or November 2007 at the Metropolitan in New York, at Glyndebourne, at Berlin’s Unter den Linden Theatre and in Dallas, to name some of the larger companies mounting the work during the times San Francisco planned to rehearse and perform the opera.) Having Hampson in a desirable role in a production and physical sets that Hampson found acceptable, was a sufficient offset for Gockley taking the heat for a production he knew would find detractors in San Francisco.

And detractors were there. I am not sure any producers and set designers have been booed in San Francisco since Rosenberg borrowed the Seattle opera’s production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” in 2003, but, after ovations for the singers, there was lusty booing for the premiere Wednesday night performance for the staging by Pountney and his co-director (and wife) Nicola Raab and hostile reviews of the production in the local press. I was at the second performance, where no concept directors nor set designers would be expected to appear. Instead the singers, chorus, conductor and orchestra – none of whom were pegged with responsibility for the physical appearance of things – again were enthusiastically cheered.

It has been my intention to begin a critique of the idea of “unit sets”, that require concept directors to think how an opera’s scenes that the composer and librettist specified as different places from one another instead all be made part of a single structure. Originally, I had expected to raise that issue as part of my review of the Olivier Tambosi-Frank Schloessman production of Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera”, owned by the Chicago Lyric Opera, but seen by me earlier this month at the Houston Grand Opera. But since I attended Houston’s final performance of “Ballo” and there are still San Francisco “Macbeth” performances scheduled after the date of this posting, I am reversing the order of the appearance of their reviews.

Verdi’s “Macbeth”, which follows the plot lines of The Bard’s play pretty closely, works in a unit set much more easily than “Ballo”, where it takes a lot of liberty and a bit of conceptual crunching to get the Royal Palace, Ulrica’s Lair, the Gibbett in a desolate place, and the Masquerade Ball all within a “Wooden O” (to use The Bard’s description of the stage for “Henry V”).

There is a similarity between Pountney’s basic set for “Macbeth” and Tambosi and Schloessman’s for “Ballo” – a curved back wall with several doors of various heights. Pountney’s has a hole in the ceiling, which, though intentionally symbolic, has no real dramatic purpose. Both productions use the doors for people to move on and off stage. Pountney, as described above, dresses the front part of the stage with the Macbeths’ private cube.

The costumes matter in both productions, but genuinely can be understood in the “Macbeth”. The witches are weird and red, any military person is usually garbed in a kind of medieval camo outfit with a iron face mask, not unlike what a baseball catcher might wear. The soldiers who get the assignment to murder Banquo and his son Fleance, must strip to their underwear, put on women’s clothes and, carrying flower bouquets, move about like transvestite street-walkers.

There are several mummies that represent dead people, but the dead murdered by the Macbeths and their children yet to be born are played by little kids in gold masks and gold and white costumes. Add the prop of chorus and kids often raising a small branch and rapidly waving it (representing both the prophecy about Birnam Wood and the final battle) and you pretty much have the production’s costuming schemes.

Since what happens to the Macbeths is the main focus of the opera, one might note that Pountney has Lady Macbeth pour red wine on her guests while singing “Si colmi il calice” and that the banquet table at which the zoned out guests sit is comprised of dirt graves containing mummies.

In the sleepwalking scene, the Lady carries a small writing desk around with her while walking around in the cube. Her lady-in-waiting (Elza van den Heever) brings in the Doctor (Jeremy Galyon) to observe her. Galyon the Doctor is led into and out of the area blindfolded, as an homage to the tight security that the Rumanian Dictator Ceausescu imposed on any outsiders whose services he might require.

[Below: Inside the cube, Lady Macbeth (Georgina Lukacs) sleepwalks in the company of a zombie, while a doctor (Jeremy Galyon) and her lady-in-waiting (Elza van den Heever) observe from outside; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

In a dream sequence the witches put Macbeth into a red dress while the bubble-blowing witch waves her soapy wand. Then Macbeth’s army comes onstage and its men lie down to sleep around him. In the final triumph of Macduff and Malcolm the soldiers carry and raise up little black books, like sooty versions of the Thoughts of Chairman Mao.

I could record several more eccentricities in stage business and costuming, but have given enough that the Eurotrash Police will have gone onto alert status.

I am as prepared for this production, now owned by the San Francisco Opera as part of a deal that makes the Zurich Opera management seem quite clever, to be labeled with a “Do Not Resuscitate” tag. But I am convinced that Gockley made the right decision in honoring Rosenberg’s deal. The San Francisco Opera has something that the none of the other opera companies currently presenting “Macbeth” have – Thomas Hampson.

And the talent beyond Hampson should be noted as well. Debuting Massimo Zanetti, conducted with a lively and elegant style, and the orchestra and chorus responded with the precision that has become the hallmark of both entities in recent years. Hampson’s supporting cast, with one exception, assured a world class performance.

Oddly, Hampson is the only principal cast member announced at the beginning of the season actually to appear. A new Banquo and Macduff were most satisfactory. The Lady Macbeth, Hungarian soprano Georgina Lukacs, was a disappointment. Lukacs, who has covered the role elsewhere and has stepped in on short notice elsewhere to sing it, required some time to get her voice, which started with broad vibrato and harsh edge, under control. She was not helped by the production, which required her to be strapped to the top of the cube, as Macbeth, inside the cube, wrote a letter to her. A soprano who needs to give her full attention to getting the right sound out of her voice does not need the distraction of worrying about falling 10 feet head-first to the stage floor.

In fact, in the early scenes, I looked forward to the passages where Lady Macbeth has short outbursts of melody, as in the duet with Macbeth, as opposed to sustained legato passages such as those encountered in her great aria “La luce langue”. However, by midway through the opera, she had tamed her voice sufficiently, so that the scenes after the intermission, including the Sleepwalking scene, were less problematic.

The principal tenor role, Macduff, one of the smaller lead tenor parts in the major Verdi operas (but still having a solo aria), was sung by Mexican tenor Alfredo Portilla, a 1994 and 1995 Adler Fellow, who has not sung at San Francisco for most of the new millenium. He made a fine impression, and delighted his many San Francisco fans. Macduff’s lord is Malcolm. Although the latter is an even smaller tenor part, it was another effective role for current Adler Fellow Noah Stewart, and the two Adler progeny ended the opera with their stirring duet with chorus. (Stewart should take note that exactly 50 years prior, San Francisco Opera’s Malcolm was Jess Thomas, so, from this small role was built one of the great heldentenor careers.)

[Below: Raymond Aceto (Banquo), edited image of a photograph by Terrence McCarthy, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. ]

The Banquo was American basso Raymond Aceto, on whose Fiesco in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” last November in Houston, I had reported on earlier (see the hyperlink at the end of this review). Even though his Fiesco seemed promising, his Banquo was even more impressive, demonstrating that his voice has developed into a deep, sonorous bass that fits perfectly this precursor of the great basso roles of Verdi’s maturity.

But a great Macbeth demonstrates that the role is the center of the opera. His soliloquy “Si mi affaccia un pugnal?” was presented so effectively, with such a range of expression in his voice matching his larger than life appearance, that one could imagine Verdi himself saying – this is how I intended the part to look and sound.

In fact, Hampson transforms the relationship between the “star status” of the singers who portray the power couple. The opera has been performed here six seasons beginning in 1955. In 1957, even though it was the role for the American debut of the great dramatic Italian baritone, Giuseppe Taddei, he was always overshadowed – first because his Lady was to be Maria Callas, and then because Leonie Rysanek, the Diva who stepped in when San Francisco Opera fired Callas, achieved a legendary success.

The next two Lady Macbeths were Grace Bumbry (1967) and Shirley Verrett (1986), whose operatic spouses were both lesser known. The star power of the 1994 pair, James Morris and Dame Gwyneth Jones, was on par with each other, but Morris shifted the attention to himself, not only by the effective acting for which he is famous, but because, in that year, he was in great vocal shape and his Lady was not.

One other remembrance of things past. The 1967 “Macbeth” was presented by San Francisco Opera with the full ballet that Verdi wrote for the version produced for Paris. It does sound odd to many people to present “Macbeth” with the ballet, but it takes place in the magical land of Hecate and the witches, and is truly one of the greatest ballets in all of opera – after those from Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” and Tchaikovsky’s “Orleanskaya Deva” (the opera which San Francisco Opera translates as “Joan of Arc”, but whose mellifluous ballet it ignores). 1967, midpoint in the Adler years (the year of Luciano Pavarotti’s debut in San Francisco) was the year in which the ballets from “Gioconda”, “Macbeth” and Gounod’s “Faust” were all performed.

Is Hampson’s performance enough to overcome an infuriatingly odd production and less than adequate co-star? Is it worth investing one’s time and money in the performance? The answer resoundingly is yes. Hampson is worth the entire price of the ticket and dominates the scenes in which the cast’s weak link, Lukacs, sings with him. The excellent supporting performances of Portilla, Aceto and Stewart are added bonuses.

As to the production itself, for those who wish to plumb Pountney’s mysteries, I believe I have provided some hints at how to search for what he intended; for those who are reluctant to invest time in such an exercise, just write it all off as a tale told by another “Jack the Ripper” concept director, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Post-script: Gockley Works the Crowd

The Sunday matinee audience was invited to gather around in the seats near the conductor’s podium to chat with General Director Gockley. As we in the audience assembled and exchanged our thoughts on our last three hours, we became conscious of a person in one of the camouflage costumes with iron mask that Macduff’s soldiers wear standing next to us. It was Gockley himself, who said he wanted it reported that he has a sense of humor.

Then, as he does once or twice a season, he invited the audience to give their responses to the performance and the season so far and to ask any questions of him about the present or future. For those who like scoops of things to come in the future, Gockley can be forthright if you ask the right question, and coy if you do not.

During a session last fall with this particular group of subscribers, the questions were pretty inane. I had asked about Olga Borodina, and he said she would open the 2007-08 season (which she did), but my fellow audience members took their time to ask him whether he would produce Joplin’s “Treemonisha” (no) or Weber’s “Die Freischuetz” (no), and spent most of the rest of the time complaining about the seat cushions and length of lines in the women’s restrooms.

This year I had my one question ready: since Adler had observed the 50th anniversary of Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West”, mounting it for Dorothy Kirsten, Sandor Konya and Tito Gobbi, was he planning to observe the opera’s hundredth anniversary? His answer, yes, to which he asked the audience the question. Guess which former Adler fellow will be Minnie! Deborah Voigt? Correct.

He then noted that since Dmitri Hvorostovsky had gotten himself quoted in Berkeley that he was to open the 2008-09 San Francisco Opera season in the title role of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra”, he would go ahead and confirm that it was true. (For my review of last Fall’s “Simon” in Houston, see: Hvorostovsky, Guryakova, Berti Excel in Houston “Simon Boccanegra” – November 4, 2006.)

He spent some time answering questions on his recent announcment that San Francisco Opera had canceled its arrangement with the Met to mount its production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” next June, because of incompatibility between that production and San Francisco’s stage facilities, and to substitute instead Graham Vick’s production from the Florence Opera, a move he said is supported by next June’s announced Lucia, Natalie Dessay.

He said that the San Francisco Opera is developing relationships with movie theatres to show operas there, as the Metropolitan Opera is doing, which, he said, helps spread the costs of productions. But, probably more than half of the time he spent explaining the Pountney “Macbeth”, at moments slightly defending some aspect of the production, and at times accepting the occasional good word put in by a person who liked the production. Finally, he reiterated that we will not begin to see the kinds of seasons he wants us to see, until 2009-10 and after, when the Rosenberg trailing edge has passed into history.

Tags: 2005-2016: William's Reviews