Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Final Quarter - Verdi's Macbeth at OTSL

Macbeth – The final opera I got to see of the season was Verdi’s first Shakespearean effort.  To be honest this was the production I liked the least, but not because of the singing or the music.  The cast was again terrific.  Roland Wood was an outstanding Macbeth, with the vocal power to perform this role effectively.  And he was well paired with Julie Makerov as Lady Macbeth.  Robert Pomakov was a terrific Banquo and Matthew Plenk was amazing as Macduff.  I remember seeing him in “Pirates” a few years ago and while I remember I liked him I just do not remember the vocal power and vocal beauty he produced.  His was a terrific performance.  The chorus also were very excellent, as usual. 
But the production I found to be less than effective on the whole.  First there is the language.  Maybe it is that I am so familiar with the Shakespeare that the translated Italian pales by comparison.  But I found the English translation wholly ineffective and at times poor. This is an opera that would be better performed in the original Italian and then reading the translation I think would not appear so absurd as it does coming out of the mouths of the performers. 
Then there are the witches – I appreciate that the director selected three to take the lead, that as a nod towards Shakespeare.  But who exactly does this director imagine these Weird Sisters to be?  That was unclear to me.  Just a bunch of spooky women playing with clay I suppose.  In a way the opera muddies it up anyway by assigning the parts to the chorus.  But still, please note that they do not effect what they predict.  I do not believe them to be inherently evil.  Rather, they act like the Norns in the Ring.  They foresee the future – this is not good or evil in and of itself.  The issue is that they choose to share the information and it is in the sharing where the evil lurks as sharing the future with mortals is a dangerous thing as it inspires evil actions.  Macbeth is inspired to murder on the basis of the knowledge he obtains, while still being oblivious to the fact that his destiny cannot be changed: Banquo’s sons will inherit the throne no matter what he does or who he kills.  I felt that the interpretation of the witches was as muddled in this production as I had ever seen in any production.  One reviewer I read from St. Louis seemed to like the idea of them lurking in scenes in which they do not appear.  But for me I would ask, what was the point of that?  They only know the future, they do not effect it so then why would they appear in other scenes? They are not pulling the strings.  They do not need to be there.  Would it make any sense, for example, to have the Norns appear to watch Siegfried slay the dragon in Siegfried? Or to watch Hagen murder Siegfried near the close of the cycle? Of course not.  Just so, it makes no sense to me for these witches to appear in these other scenes. Ultimately I think the witches are the key to understanding the play, and since the Weird Sisters are so muddled in so many operatic and theater performances I can only gather that ultimately this play is not completely understood by those who perform it or direct it. For me the best interpretation of these Weird Sisters is the RSC film with Patrick Stewart.

Then there were the supers who were supposed to be Bishops of some sort. (No reflection on the actors themselves who did a fine job doing whatever it was they were instructed to do)!  So, I am going to title this section of my review: “An Opera Director’s Guide to the Depiction of Clergy – what to do and what NOT to do.”
I have come to the conclusion that one of the reason that I really do not prefer supposed “traditional” productions of operas set in various historical periods is that so few seem to understand the history of the periods in which they are attempting to set a work.  Macbeth is set in the 11th century and is based on actual historical characters (who, BTW, actually did nothing that is depicted in the play).  The story is fiction, but the setting is historical.  Some may not even know that Malcolm, Duncan’s son who is crowned at the conclusion of the opera/play was actually still king of Scotland in 1066 when Duke William led the Norman invasion.  So, if one is going to try to set something in the 11th century could we please study up a bit on the 11th century and not just do vaguely general Medieval stuff like you would find at a Renaissance Faire or at a meeting of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

Mostly (with the exception of the witches) in this production it was the depiction of the clergy that was the biggest disconnect for me.  I will do this in the form of a list and start with a couple general comments:
1.              Catholic bishops – so far so good.  Yes they would have been Catholic.  Most operas depict Catholic clergy – notable exceptions include Lucia di Lammermore where Raimondo is a Knoxian Presbyterian; and Verdi’s little performed Stiffelio.  In both cases I doubt that the “pastors” could actually get through the approval process at seminary – but that is a topic for another day.  Nevertheless 11th century Scotland was Roman Catholic.
2.              Vestments were expensive.  Often Vestments were carted away by looters during the many raids that infected the Middle Ages.  Therefore Vestments were not worn outside of worship.  There were exceptions to this of course.  The Bishop’s donning of Vestments in Don Carlo for the auto-da-fe scene is entirely appropriate because this is para-liturgical act.  But welcoming guests to the castle for an overnight stay?  No bishop would have worn expensive bejeweled Vestments for that kind of thing.  And specific vestments such as copes and miters also had a specific usage. Copes in particular were simply cloaks to provide warmth in the days before central heating.  These would have been worn only in the context of worship, but not even for the whole service. Both copes and miters would be removed after the processional and then taken up again for the recessional.  They would not necessarily have been worn during the distribution of Holy Communion.  Having these two supers as Bishops wearing golden copes and miters was a total disconnect for me throughout the opera.  The best depiction I can think of seeing is in the BBC’s “Hollow Crown” series.  They get the clergy vestment issue exactly right.  FYI, the most common garment for clergy were cassocks and in the winter they would have added a black wool cloak.
3.              But my major complaint in this production of Macbeth was the depiction of the distribution of Holy Communion that was inserted into the murder of Banquo scene.  The chorus, the assassins, Banquo and Fleance all commune during this scene before the assassin attacks.  Perhaps the director was recalling “Murder in the Cathedral” by TS Elliot, to which I actually do not have any objections.  The idea itself I think is a good one and could have been rather effective and shocking, if it had been done better.  But there were so many blatant historical and liturgical problems with how this scene was directed that it fell completely flat in my view. 
So where to start? First of all Holy Communion is always served in the context of a liturgy, of some sort.  The distribution itself is never a stand-alone rite. At least the Verba need to be spoken.  There could have easily been a silent pantomime of a brief liturgy to set the context.  Instead the bishops arrive in full regalia and start passing out bread (I actually think they had real wafers, though I am not sure) and offering pretend wine in a chalice.
So here we run into a really thorny problem.  Most Roman Catholics know that the cup was withheld from the laity all the way up to Vatican II in the early 1960’s.  This became the official theological Sacramental policy of the church at the Council of Trent (1545 through 1563). However the practice of withholding the cup can be traced back to the 12th century and probably arose for practical reasons quickly followed by theological reasoning – e.g. the doctrine of Transubstantiation which holds that the bread and wine of the Sacrament actually become the true body and blood of Christ.  But of course, Macbeth takes place in the 11th century, so it is conceivable that the cup may still have been offered, though it is equally possible that the cup was withheld since saying Mass in a variety of circumstances (like communing the sick or communing soldiers about to fight a battle) brings up all kinds of logistical problems with providing a cup. (The Medieval church also had a superstition problem, but I’ll leave this one alone for now).  It is also possible that in the 11th century communion might have been distributed via a practice known as ‘intinction.”  In intinction the priest would dip the bread into the cup and then place the wafer on the communicants tongue.
So here is the problem.  In this production one Bishop held the ciborium abd distributed the bread and one served the cup.  It looked like I was at a 21st century Catholic Church.  The communicants took the bread in the hand, ate it and then took the cup in their hands and sipped from it before handing it back to the server.  Sorry, while this is perfectly appropriate for churches today, it is completely outside the practice of the early Middle Ages. Communion should have been served preferably in one form - the bread only, placed on the tongue by the server (Bishop).  If they had opted for including the cup then the Sacrament should have been served in the same way with the bishop dipping the bread himself before placing the wafer on the tongue.  But, what was particularly egregious was the communing of Fleance.  Fleance took the bread in his hand and then dipped the bread in the cup himself.  I was stunned by that!  That would never have happened like that before 1963 much less in the early Middle Ages.
It should be clear by now dear reader that I was completely distracted from the scene of the murder of Banquo by the completely inauthentic and inappropriate manner in which the Sacrament of Holy Communion was depicted during this scene.  And the scene itself was not even about the Sacrament.  But when the director doesn’t do his homework this is what happens.  Please, directors everywhere, before you depict clergy and liturgical rites do a little research and/or get a consultants.  I, for example, would have been happy to volunteer my consulting services.  Please do not just throw together a bunch of impressions you have gleaned from childhood, the movies and “Game of Thrones.”  The fact is that a larger portion of your audience than you might imagine is aware of these kinds of things.  I doubt that I was the only one who noticed it.
4.              Lastly, I want to comment on the quasi-coronation in the last scene. Coronations were exceptionally important public events that were carefully planned and executed with the maximum of planning and spectacle (example: the amazing opening scene in Boris Godunov).  Bishops did not scoop up the crown from the battlefield and do a quick down and dirty battlefield coronation. Perhaps a warrior (or even a warrior bishop) might have picked up a crown from the mud and handed it to the victor.  But that would not have been considered a coronation.  The official coronation would have been carefully planned for later.  And Bishops would not have been found on the battlefield in full liturgical raiment either (see above).  More than likely any bishops found on the field would have been clad in armor.  For example, Bishop Odo, the brother of William the Conqueror, who was Bishop of Bayeaux (hence the Bayeaux Tapestry) participated in the Battle of Hastings and was present when Harold was killed.  William would not have been foolish enough to have had his half-brother perform an improvised coronation on the spot.  That would have been a truly foolish thing to do. Malcom was in a better place politically than was William, but even so he had factions to placate as well. 
In closing, I want to reiterate that musically I felt the performance was very strong.  All of the singing was top notch.  But I found the Macbeth less than satisfactory, first due to its being sung in English, second because I felt the approach to the Witches was confusing and lastly because of the interjection of Bishops (not called for in the libretto) and their use was so totally wrong for the 11th century.  It is interesting to compare this Macbeth to the one on Opera Platform from Latvia and I have to say that despite the drastic difference in their approach I really prefer the more Regie production from Latvia.  I wasn’t wild about the absence of the Witches on stage (the women sang from the pit), but that worked better frankly than the OTSL production and there were other things – the murder of Banquo was completely focused on that act and the director really did a terrific job in building the tension.  And I came to really appreciate the screen and the extra dimension it provided.  On the other hand, I have to say that musically the Latvia production was really not stronger than the OTSL production.  The singers were comparable with an edge going to OTSL.

Over all this was a terrific season at OTSL with Shalimar sitting at the top of my list as one of the most profound operatic experiences of the year (or several years for that matter – though last year’s Emmeline was also pretty amazing)!  I am looking forward to next season.

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