Red meat on frozen ground: cold approach to Macbeth

Anchorage Daily NewsFebruary 18, 2012 

The chill of murder dominates "Macbeth." At least for Cynthia Edwards, stage director for Verdi's operatic version of Shakespeare's tragedy, which runs through next Sunday.

"I went for a very northern, very cold approach," she said. "A blood-in-the-snow kind of thing."

While there's no actual onstage snow in this particular version, her Celtic-inspired production for Anchorage Opera is meant to invoke the frozen heath of Scotland, a panorama as barren, hard and icy as the hearts of Shakespeare's thane and his bloody-handed bride.

The choice of an opera from Verdi's early period, an Anchorage first, is noteworthy. "Macbeth" hails from the years when the young composer was writing as fast as the commissions came in; this was one of three operas he debuted in 1847 alone.

Almost all of Verdi's plots involve ambition, revenge and violent death, but "Macbeth" was peculiar in several ways. The composer rarely and tentatively used divine intervention or, more often, coincidence to drive the action. But "Macbeth" is the only one of his 28 operas to wholeheartedly embrace the supernatural as a reality, at least a theatrical reality.

Conductor Kelly Kuo notes another oddity in the opera: "It has no love story," not even as a subplot.

"It is much darker than his other works," said Edwards. "On one hand, there's a lot of red meat. On the other hand, it's more interior, if that's the right word."

Others have commented that the level of psychological turmoil in "Macbeth" was unsurpassed in opera until the 20th century. Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene is the apex of the wild soprano "mad aria" that had become something of a stock feature in musical theater of the era.


What makes "Macbeth" all the more eerie is the fact that the homicidal horror show is set to music. In fact the title role is given to a baritone, a voice for which Verdi wrote with exceptional sensitivity and beauty. And the action is tightened down to its intense core; about half of the play is eliminated.

"Focusing on Shakespeare brought out Verdi's genius," said Edwards. "Macbeth was a real departure."

And a popular one. "Macbeth" was extensively performed after its premiere.

Verdi reworked it extensively 20 years later, at the height of his powers, mostly adding material to satisfy the expectations of operagoers in Paris, who demanded more spectacle. He added numbers and gave it a brand new ending.

"Originally, Macbeth has a great death aria and dies onstage," said Kuo. "It's curious how Verdi changed that. The revision wasn't as successful as the original, and I have a feeling it had to do with the ending."

In fact "Macbeth" didn't really come back into the repertoire until modern companies started combining elements of the two versions. That is what Anchorage Opera is doing. The death aria, for instance, is reinstated just before the end.

"It lets me keep him onstage until the final chorus," Edwards said. "And it gives him a final moment of clarity."

As in the original drama, the opera ripples with underpinnings of prophecy and superstition. The Three Witches in the play become part of a chorus of witches in Verdi's take. (In the Anchorage production, they appear in baggy robes with large gloves resembling claws.) And the ghosts are very real, not merely imagined or a literary device.

"The apparition scene is always tricky," said Edwards. "It calls for special effects."


Otherworldly spookiness is whipped up by the absolutely natural evil created by humans' lust for power. That message is made "Macbeth's" main theme in some productions of both the play and the opera, not to mention altered updatings like Barbara Garson's 1967 play, "MacBird," which set the drama in Lyndon Johnson's administration. (The satire was famous in its day. Stacy Keach had the lead role; Rue McClanahan was Lady MacBird.)

"It's about a power grab. Very political," said Edwards. "You could do a modern dress version. When I first got this assignment I was keen to do that."

She turned away from that idea as she thought about Scotland 1,000 years ago.

"What I loved were the standing stones," she said, the mysterious Neolithic monuments found in various spots across the Celtic world, with numerous sites in Scotland.

The stones become the motif for the starkness of both the setting and the mood of the piece. Additionally, they can be moved to suggest various sites in the opera without busting the budget.

Perhaps most important, the bare-bones set turns the attention to the singers, which is especially crucial in this piece. Brenda Harris and Todd Thomas, in the main roles, have done the roles in the past to acclaim. Kuo called them "astonishing."

"We have two of the best American singers on the planet in the main roles," said Edwards. "With this set they can just deliver the music -- and it's very exciting music."

One of the most attractive things about "Macbeth" is how it reveals the power of the mature composer while retaining the charm of his earlier works, said Kuo.

"The original version was written at a time when the singers were the stars. Each number stands on its own, compartmentalized excerpts -- perfect for the short attention spans of our OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) generation."

While none of the numbers is as famous as the later Anvil Chorus from "Trovatore" or Grand March from "Aida," several are still masterpieces. "The Refugee Chorus is gorgeous," said Kuo. "But it's never done."

Except when the full opera is presented. And it appears that this "Macbeth" is the first performance of any early Verdi opera in Alaska.

"Anchorage is lucky to hear it," said Kuo. "I hope we can do it justice."

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

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