'Macbeth' at Anchorage Opera was a gripping success

Mike Dunham

With a shoestring budget, Anchorage Opera has managed to present a gripping "Macbeth" that doesn't readily reveal its shortcuts. Verdi's grand opera take on Shakespeare's story received a compelling production to a sold out opening night house on Saturday, and there's no shortage of parties deserving praise for pulling off a stirring success.

Top honors, however, should probably go to conductor Kelly Kuo. With a severely reduced orchestra -- 10 violins, the brass section cut to one trumpet, one trombone and two horns -- he conjured the impression of a much larger ensemble tucked under the stage of the Discovery Theatre. The sound, at least following the overture, was full and taut as Kuo brought out the drama and lyricism. The orchestra played with robust enthusiasm and accuracy.

The principal roles were in good hands. Brenda Harris propelled Lady Macbeth's acrobatic music with power and commanding attitude. In the title role, Todd Thomas was direct and angst-filled, particularly in the apparition scene.

Yoshi Tanakura has created several highly effective sets. Replicas of Scotland's ancient "standing stones" adorned the bleak, spooky landscape in most scenes, but segments of stonework were used to suggest a medieval castle in other places. It was brought to life by Lauren MacKenzie Miller's animated lighting. The opening scene with the witches' chorus featured lightning effects that drew instant murmurs of appreciation from the audience.

Cynthia Edwards's direction balanced natural mannerisms with a studied symmetry when dealing with the supernatural. Particularly nice touches included the rising of a screen to show the murdered body of Duncan to the horror of the vassals.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have the lion's share of the singing. But the secondary roles also won over the listeners, particularly Derrick Parker as Banquo and Benjamin Bongers as Macduff. Benjamin Robinson sang Malcom, Lisa Willis was the Lady in Waiting and Kyle Gantz sang the part of the Doctor. All hit their marks in a way that proved the old adage: there are no small roles. Certainly none in "Macbeth."

Several choristers sang from offstage; apparently the company could not afford enough costumes for everyone. That may have made them too quiet in spots and sometimes created the odd impression that the chorus was miked. But the choral work in the banquet scene, the finale and the second witches scene was all good.

This is a fabulously difficult piece to pull off in that everything must click to make it hold together as a gripping and persuasive piece of musical theater. Credit for the success of the current production must also be extended to the company's director for the past five years, Torrie Allen, whose last day will coincide with the Friday night show. In an era that has seen the demise of many American opera companies, Allen has kept Anchorage Opera viable to celebrate this, the 50th year of its founding. That feat has required both dedicated creative energy and massive economies.

In the current "Macbeth," however, one is only aware of the former.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

Anchorage Daily News