Toil and trouble: Toledo Opera rises to the challenge of 'Macbeth'

Published Wednesday, October 2, 2019
by Wayne Anthony

Toledo Opera opens its 2019-20 season this weekend with what could be described as the “Grandfather” of all operas, Giuseppe Verdi’s setting of William Shakespeare’s epic tragedy, Macbeth.

The work is simply a beast of musical force, mixing intricate human machination, complex staging, and the supernatural.

When asked “Why Macbeth?”, opera maestro James Meena replied, “Why not? The original play is famous beyond description; almost every high school student in the country reads it at some point. It has an intriguing plot; visually it looks interesting.”

He continued, “More than anything, it is not necessarily on the list of the ‘popular operas.’ It pushes the limits of what audiences expect to see on the stage without being ‘way out there.’ It is simply an excellent choice to expand the dramatic repertory of any company.”

The last Toledo production of Macbeth was in 1991. In this incarnation, it will be fully staged in Italian with English supertitles.

Macbeth was Verdi’s 10th opera, and the first of his Shakespearean settings. First performed in 1847, and later revised in 1865, it represents a pinnacle of the composer’s romantic style, combining flowing melodic lines with full dramatic intent, and a sea of plot twists and tangles guaranteed to please even the most stoic of the Italian romantics at the time.

The opera holds true to Shakespeare’s original plot, though it does reduce the original five acts to four. A Scottish general, Macbeth, encounters a coven of witches who predict his rise to greatness, eventually leading to kingship.

The prophecies unleash a torrent of machinations on the part of both Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth. From Verdi’s perspective, the opera could easily have been called Lady Macbeth, as she clearly becomes the driving force sealing the Scotsman’s fate.

What ensues are a series of heinous acts of murder from Macbeth’s colleague Banco (Banquo in the original), to the regicide of Duncano (Duncan the King), and the infanticide of his friend Macduff’s children as Macbeth and his wife attempt to manipulate fate to bring the prophecies to pass.

The end is classic tragedy: the madness and implied suicide of Lady Macbeth, and the eventual slaughter of Macbeth himself, who believes he is invincible. 

What makes the opera such a beast are the two main roles, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Not only is the singing the pinnacle of technical prowess, the backstory of the drama are so intricate and interwoven, they require consummate actors.

Michigan-based veteran baritone Mark Rucker was Meena’s first choice for the Scottish leader. Rucker has made a career of romantic tragic characters, from Rigoletto to Pagliacci, but he openly admits that Macbeth is one of his favorites.

The singer said, “I love the role. It’s Verdi; its complicated. I must continually interact with things that are not there, ghosts, motivations. And I always get to do it with different casts of people each time I perform it. My favorite parts are the apparition scenes. I must deal with all of these things that are in my head, whether or not the director decides to actually put them on stage.”

He continued, “Macbeth must deal with the larger implications of the role’s morality. He is a soldier sworn to loyalty, but contemplates and commits the regicide of his King to achieve the glory he desires, and that has been predicted…and his wife won’t wait for it to just happen naturally.”

For Lady Macbeth, Meena invited dramatic soprano Othalie Graham. It is her first time singing the role, and she will freely admit that she never even considered doing it. “It was only because Maestro Meena told me I could do the part that I even considered adding it to my repertoire.

“It is fiendishly difficult. The extremes of vocal technique are couched in one of the most complicated emotional roles in the literature. I have to constantly check myself on the balance between good vocal work and the extremes of the acting. It’s one of the greatest challenges I’ve faced as a professional singer.”

Asked what she hopes people will take from her portrayal, she said, “I hope they see that Lady Macbeth is a powerful woman who is much more ambitious than her husband. She actually should have been the queen, but the times would not allow such a thing. She is smart, cunning, beautiful, and she always knows what is best and how to get it, even if it is at the cost her own morality and mortality.”

It’s not the first pairing of Rucker and Graham in a Toledo Opera show; they also shared the stage in Aida in 2013.

“We also have brought back a number of our former young resident artists to fill out the cast and the chorus,” said Opera Executive Director Suzanne Rorick. “These are singers who we helped to start on their careers, and now they are making it in the business for themselves. It is a recipe for a perfect Macbeth. All of these great voices combined in a powerful, moving production.”

The stage direction is by acclaimed Italian director Ivan Stefanutti, who designed the costumes as well. He is making his Toledo debut. The Scottish sets are underscored by visual projections designed by Michael Baumgarten.

A free lecture on the opera by BGSU musicologist Eftychia Papanikolaou is open to ticket holders one hour before each performance in the theater’s Grand Lobby.

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