Thomas Hampson “is a tough nut to crack.” Bass and fellow Ohioan (go Buckeyes!) Raymond Aceto, who plays Banquo in directors David Pountney and Nicola Raab’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth (Italian) at the San Francisco Opera through December 2, goes on to say, (Hampson) “holds court with whomever he’s with.” At the moment, Hampson was holding court with his party of four at the after-performance hotspot, Jardinière, located just ‘round the corner from San Francisco’s decadent War Memorial Opera House. My objective was to somehow politely intrude and score a moment with the devastatingly talented (and handsome) leading man. While I pondered the proper time to pounce, I realized Aceto’s playful warning not only applies to Hampson, but to this production as a whole. Pountney and Raab’s production holds one hell of a court, even if their audience doesn’t always know how to return their serve.
Opening night did not exactly achieve the “no less than twenty-five bows” of Verdi’s opening in 1847. I heard the buzz about the boos directed at the members of the production team who dared to take a bow. No boos were heard during or after my November 18th matinee. In fact, another Thomas—San Francisco Symphony maestro MTT, who was seated to my right—offered a hearty “Bravo!” following Hampson’s dramatic, heart wrenching, and perfectly pitched aria at the end of Act 4. Take that to the bank. But then, Hampson’s delivery, both vocal and dramatic, is not at all in question here; the baritone reigns constant and supreme throughout. The question weighs heavily on the shoulders of Set Designer Stefanos Lazaridis and Costume Designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca, who attempt the avant-garde with an audience that seems to be stuck in the pre-defined, the conventional, and the mainstream when it comes to opera.
This isn’t your “sit back and enjoy the show” through your opera glasses kind of opera, but a little work never hurt any brain now, did it? Aside from some talented singers, and aside from an orchestra, conducted by Massimo Zanetti, that accompanies, at times amazes, and unfortunately attends to outdoing Alfredo Portilla’s tenor rendition of Macduff, the audience is hit left and right with thought-provoking spectacle. It seems as though Macbeth’s castle is synonymous with a carnival funhouse, while Macbeth is a visitor turn permanent resident in the end. I’ve yet to account for the bizarre crater-like hole ripped through the ceiling of this dark stage (I conjure hell on earth without reference) but the main prop that moves from stage right to left, turns backward to forward, is a large wooden box that serves as Macbeth and his Lady’s home. Within are distorted mirrors right and sinister, and it’s lit with painfully bright white florescent lights. Consider living in this distorted glass house, being forced to look upon your reflection in the beaming white light at all times, and then throw in a regicide and the murder of your best friend. Home sweet home.
Hungarian-born soprano, Georgina Lukács, is the perfect vocal fit for Lady Macbeth, so if you’re expecting a sweet and melodious soprano, think again. Lady Macbeth is, in the words of Hampson, “the embodiment of evil,” and thus Lukács’ voice is sometimes screeching, sometimes soft, sometimes frightening, sometimes beautiful, at times seductive, other times guttural, and always powerful. We do not love Lady Macbeth, but we are affected. Lukács is introduced as a sideshow, barely visible as she sleeps atop the wooden box during Act 1, scene 1. Upon awakening, we see she has a thick black rope connecting her waist to the box. The witches watch her show from below, relaxing in a makeshift lounge, as Lukács speaks her opening lines while pacing back and forth, then up and down on all fours like an animal. Verdi, himself, directed that certain parts of Lady Macbeth “must not be sung at all, but must be acted declaimed in a voice that is hollow and veiled. Without this, the whole effect is lost.” This “hollow and veiled” effect comes to dramatic life during the sleepwalking scene. Lukács battles with the damned spot while inside the florescent box, snuffing her own candle twice between scribbling on the glass doors in madness. The doors are closed toward the audience to reveal her musings, and Lukács continues to sing from inside. The auricular effect: hollow and veiled. The dramatic effect: frighteningly breathtaking.
Vocally, Lukács and Hampson are dynamic; dramatically, not so much, with the obvious critique falling on Lukács’ rigid and sometimes robotic movements. It’s as though Lukács cannot produce a powerful note at the same time as an easy gesture. In effect, the necessary erotic tone between the two is lost.
With a bravo to Lighting Designer Jürgen Hoffmann, this stage is made up of two kinds of light: “natural” and manmade, with a mark of brilliance between the two. The image of sunlight enters with Hampson stage right as he returns home after hearing (or reading) the first prophesies from the Weird Sisters. “Oh never shall sun that morrow see.” We don’t see this “natural” light enter the stage again until Macbeth is nightmarishly slain and Malcom is crowned. All other lighting is painful or deceiving in some way. Bright white florescent lights rule the distorted funhouse; a glowing green light turns the dry soil downstage left into turf and back into soil again and again; projections of the libretto seem to jump out of the walls like a sort of psychedelic torture chambering the second set of prophesies.
And then there’s that typewriter placed center stage, at times glowing green, with a small tree (Birnam, you know) planted gently to its right. What of that? I like to think it’s a snub to the likes of me, the critic, the journalist, the writer of opinion, and at times the creator of fate. The power of the press is frightening. And so are the Weird Sisters, who are accompanied by a symphonic sideshow chorus of thirty tawdry witches clad in red, performing a bevy of acts, from hula hooping, dumbbell lifting, iPod grooving, nail painting, typewriting, to the acid-trip puppeteering of the sleep-deprived Macbeth. Verdi envisioned the witches to be “rude and gossipy, exalted, and prophetic,” and “fully a part of the human condition.” Pountney and Raab responded by making their witches prevalent throughout their production, and the Sisters mummified journalists, wrapped in scraps of newsprint from head to toe. They are decrepit, yet somehow preserved. During their first set of prophesies, the mute and crooked creatures slowly circle the stage, tearing pieces of print from their bodies and forcing them upon Hampson, who responds with an immaculate duet with Aceto, who attempts to defy fate by tearing the words. The scene ends with Hampson walking toward Aceto, raising his arm and placing his hand upon Aceto’s shoulder while singing (in Italian), “I must not raise my hand against fate.”
This production is both blatant and inconspicuous. We don’t see a floating dagger, Macbeth does. Duncan’s blood is not red, but drips from Lady Macbeth’s hands as a clear green slime, only to underscore the disgusting and unnatural act of regicide. Banquo’s ghost does not attend the banquet; rather, three long tables aligned stage left to right reveal a feast of dirt, and a shocking grave-like emergence of the Weird Sisters, always looming, always present, rising from the dead earth that is said to have created man.
And what of man?
I had several minutes (and a glass of good wine) to contemplate before pouncing on Hampson and his captivated party of four. After recovering from a momentary episode of weak knees and thick tongue, I asked Hampson why it is, after all that occurs, why it is we still love Macbeth. Hampson corrected my use of “love” by saying that to do so would be naïve. I concur, and I believe I was confusing the character with current company and some other lusty concept, but I digress… Hampson eloquently describes Macbeth as having “compromised morality,” and as the “Everyman” with whom we can identify. His decisions are conscious; he battles with himself, and with the concept of morality. There are consequences to his actions, and lessons to be learned, both blatant and not. This onstage box that seems to be creating quite an upheaval with my fellow journalists helps to exemplify this concept of the “Everyman.” In Act 4, scene 1, the glass doors are closed and the unlit box faces the audience. As the chorus of Scottish exiles laments the tyranny of the state, the audience is able to see their own reflection in the glass doors. In effect, we become Everyman, and I, for one, don’t have a stone to throw.