Thursday, May 31, 2007

Shakespeare in Italy in Washington

On Tuesday, Lowender and I saw the Washington National Opera's production of Verdi's opera Macbeth. Though not quite the full-body experience of the same company's performance of Wagner's Die Walküre from earlier in the year, the special effects, amazingly, may have been more elaborate. Much of the scenery was projected onto a mesh screen through which we had to watch most of the action — it worked, but I kept wanting the screen to disappear so I could actually see the performers clearly. On the screen was every ghost or image Macbeth thought he saw — so instead of Banquo's ghost running around scaring people, we had to look at a huge drawing of him. Also, we saw Macbeth's imaginary dagger fly out at us (enlarge rapidly on the mesh — see this review for a nice description and a generally solid discussion) before a real one actually fell and hit the stage. It was strange and creative, but then again, so is Verdi's Macbeth. Somehow, it worked. It must have been the chorus of witches dressed completely in white and playing with hula hoops and big rubber balls that did it for me. It's easy to call that stuff tacky, but because the music seems to be so inappropriately lighthearted at times, I suspect that the best productions of this opera are the ones that can make fun of themselves.

It may be easy to look down on Macbeth in the context of other Verdi operas whose music may be more a little more interesting (Otello). People who do this are wrong. It's hard to deny the power and simplicity of the melodic material (and especially of Lady Macbeth's first aria and the final chorus), the ensemble singing at the end of each act, and the otherworldly chord progression that accompanies the procession of kings the witches show Macbeth. And it's just too easy to say this only prefigures Verdi's later and "better" stuff and to never listen to it again. But there's something disturbingly magical about hearing angry Scottish nobles and warriors singing jaunty music in Italian, and you can't get that just anywhere.

Dance to the full posting!