Thursday, July 28, 2016

“La Favorite” by Donizetti – performed at La Fenice in Venice.

Had the opportunity to go to the summer movie house in St. Louis again last night for a really remarkable performance of “La Favorite” by Donizetti.  The opera was originally composed for the Paris Operá and in French but later Donizetti created an Italian version which has been historically preferred.  Famously, Luciano Pavarotti championed this opera, but I think he only performed the Italian version.  I had seen it once before in Italian and had loved the music, but was not as enthusiastic about the plot and libretto – more about that below.

But first I have to say this was a top-notch performance musically and dramatically in every way.  The singing was spectacular and not just by the principals, but by everyone, including the chorus.  The work was also very well conducted and the orchestra was terrific. I really do not understand why the Met doesn’t engage John Osborn more often.  He has a gorgeous voice.  It is bright with a beautiful ring to it.  He is sensitive musically and able to spin the most delicate phrases and when necessary also able to effectively thunder out.  And not only that but he is a great actor! He completely inhabits his roles and always puts in a very committed performance.  I have seen him a lot – mostly in European productions – and I really like him. He is particularly good with these sort of angry, crazy tenor roles.  And in this opera he was especially outstanding as Fernand.  As his rival King, Alphonse, the baritone Vito Priante did a beautiful job. His is another gorgeous voice and he is also a baritone who can act!  And as their love interest Léonor de Guzman, mezzo-soprano Veronica Simeoni was also outstanding.  And then the supporting cast – all equally excellent: Pauline Rouillard as Inés, bass Simon Lim as Balthazar and a wonderful comprimario tenor, Ivan Ayon Rivas, as Don Gaspar.  During intermission Rivas was interviewed and struck me as being probably one of the nicest and sweetest guys ever and he must have struck the interviewer the same because he was asked how it was possible for him (of all people I suppose) to play such a terrible, evil character like Don Gaspar so effectively and he laughed and essentially said – “It’s called acting!”  And while the Met certainly has a number of terrific comprimari they really ought to take a look at this guy. He also had a beautiful voice.  The conductor, Donato Renzetti also was outstanding.  Have I made the point yet?  Musically this was a terrific, outstanding performance in my view.

The plot of this opera is, IMHO, a bit troubled and tiresome, especially for a 21st century audience. I do not think it is a particularly effective operatic plot.  In fact, I don’t much like it at all.  When I saw it a couple years ago in a musically fine production (which is still on YouTube) I found it to be tiresome and silly.  It is essentially a blame the female victim plot:  A beautiful woman, Léonor de Guzman (who is a historical character BTW, but whose life bore little to no resemblance to this plot) is promised that she will be queen by the King but, he is already married and so she becomes his mistress. She then meets and falls in love with the love of her life (Fernand) but is terrified that he will find out about her relationship with the King. She resolves to do the right thing and have her friend and associate Inés go to him and tell him everything.  But the jealous Don Gaspar prevents Inés from taking the information to Fernand.  This then leads to this major confrontation scene where the truth finally comes out and Fernand rebukes and brutally rejects Leonor out because her impurity is a stain on his honor (gag!).  In the last act she takes poison and finds him, now back in the monastery and begs for his forgiveness.  He is reluctant at first but eventually he is overcome with love and affection and he forgives her and wants to return to a life with her, but it is too late.  His honor is saved by her suicide. Leonor is a victim multiple times in this plot.

This brings me to the staging by director Rosetta Cucchi, which I found to be exceptionally engaging.  Not only that but was visually stunning. Lit softly the set and creative costumes were all in various shades of gray, blue, purple, white and black.  The only other color was from the dancers during the 2nd act ballet who were butterflies.  It worked.  I immediately could tell that this staging was an imagined futuristic world.  And at the intermission there was an extensive interview with her and she laid out her vision, for which I am grateful.  I was able to pick up some of it but I would not have gotten all of it were it not for this interview.  So the original she said takes place in the year 1398 (or something like that) and she turned the numbers around to 8931 and set the opera in a distant future.  In this world the monks are the keepers of the chemistry of life and it is they that have the secret to preserving life and sustaining life.  Their monastery is made to look like the periodic table – on purpose (the set designer said as much) – and that which is essential to life – water and various kinds of plants are carefully stewarded by the monks.  Balthasar therefore yields much power and he is, like many who have that kind of power, a despot.  In this world, women have become “incubators” – they are de-humanized and have no feelings at all, and this is symbolized by their long flowing white hair. Leonor is an anomaly as she is not yet completely de-humanized.  She is still capable of feelings and because of this she is both desperately desired and also feared and shunned.  This is symbolized by her long flowing blond hair which slowly starts to turn white (until she cuts it all off when she pretends to be a boy in the last act). So Alphonse desires her, Fernand desires her and Balthasar and Don Gaspar hate her.  In act 2 the ballet features two dancers as butterflies who emerge from their cocoon only to suffocate in the constriction of the confines of this harsh society, symbolized by a womb like clear structure which I cannot describe but was exceptionally effective and both beautiful and terrifying. But the de-humanization has an effect on the men as well.  Dehumanizing the women has resulted in the dehumanization and enslavement of the men as well.  None of them are able to strike out on their own, including the King.  Fernand does it and is harshly shamed until he returns to the fold. The arrest of Inés was particularly revealing as this arrest included a symbolic rape That further dehumanized the men (she was already dehumanized).  In this society “honor” becomes a meaningless word that stands for the highest value but really has been stripped of all meaning (see Shakespeare on this one – I think Cucchi was channeling the Bard here because I kept thinking of Marc Antony’s great speech about the “honorable men” who murdered Caesar and Falstaff’s terrific speech from Henry IV, part I.)  Ultimately we are all human together – or we can loose our humanity by giving in to the dictates of despots who promise us security but which results in objectifying violence and hate.

(Digression – Did Cucchi think at all about the American election, with the most dangerous despot attempting to become president by dehumanizing and objectifying other groups – including women?  She may not have, but this only speaks to the timeliness of her vision.)

So, I thought this production was brilliant!  She was able to take a rather misogynist plot and twist it around into something else entirely.  And that something else ended up being a production that was visually stunning, musically brilliant and exceptionally though-provoking.  Did it all work?  No. The English subtitles (for which I am grateful) were an exact translation of the libretto and not interpretive in any way.  Therefore sometimes what we saw on the stage was not consistent with the libretto.  And usually this bugs the heck out of me.  But in this case it didn’t.  I was fine with it and had no problem just reading past that and taking in the stage image.  This is the case because I find this libretto to be very poor on the whole.  Donizetti create incredibly beautiful music for it.  But otherwise there is nothing to redeem this libretto.  I cannot recommend this production more highly.  And I hope we see more of Rosetta Cucchi.  She is one brilliant visionary of a stage director.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Union Ave. Opera - Mikado

     For years the Mikado was perhaps one of the most beloved of Gilbert and Sullivan's light operas.  Ostensibly set in a fantasy Japan, it, like all of Gilbert's other work, took direct aim at Victorian British institutions.  The satire was at times harsh, but always clever and humorous. There had been however, some dis-ease with the Japanese setting from early on. But most were able to recognize that there is little to nothing truly Japanese about the setting or the jokes. And the strict way the copyright was managed insured that nothing excessive or incompatible with Gilbert's vision would be introduced.  That is - until the copyright expired.  And since then among the myriads of production one problem which has emerged has been the tasteless introduction of Asian/Japanese jokes and sight gags. Many of these were blatantly racist and an explosion finally occurred first in Seattle and then recently in New York City where protests erupted. I have read some pretty harsh commentary about "The Mikado" which frankly in my opinion is for the most part pretty uninformed, as it seems to not understand the work at all.  Still, it has (rightly I think) prompted G&S companies to rethink their approach to staging the work. At a minimum the concerns raised have caused directors to think through some of their sight gags and eliminate some of the more offensive ones.  At its most extreme other directors have attempted to rethink and rework the entire piece attempting to excise the Japanese setting completely.  The first and best know of these approaches is the well known Jonathan Miller staging for the English National Opera which reset the piece in a sea-side resort.
     This is roughly the same approach taken by the Union Ave Opera's production of the Mikado by its director Eric Gibson. And on the whole it worked pretty well.  I have to say right off the bat though that it was a great performance. The cast was simply terrific and the production was very entertaining. Zachery James as the Mikado managed to steal every scene he was in and so did Melissa Parks as Katisha - both of them were terrific. E. Scott Levin and Andy Papas were also outstanding as Poo-Bah and Ko-Ko. As this production attempted to remove Japan from the setting and the opera in every way certain lines were cut or altered: "In my artless Japanese way" became "artless millennial way" for example, and the joke about Japanese not carrying pocket handkerchiefs was cut. But other references were harder to excise. "Do you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Japan." or "A more humane Mikado never did in Japan exist." were retained. But the setting now is the "Japan Gentleman's Club" and the Mikado is now the "Mayor" (according to the program).
     Frankly I enjoyed the performance so much that I didn't really think much about it all during the performance, and it all kind of worked for me... sort of... well, until I started thinking about it on my long drive home and then, well, it kind of fell apart. I think It is all of the talk of execution which creates the problem. Since when does a Gentleman's club have a Lord High Executioner, even one as incompetent as Ko-Ko. And the Mikado is the Mayor of... well, what exactly?  The Gentleman's Club? Or the town in which the gentleman's club is located - is that Titipu, (that was never very clear for me either)? Ok, but since when does a mayor have the power to execute people by throwing them into a pot of boiling oil or molten lead? And it must be quite a gentleman's club where you might get executed for flirting! And well, not to be indelicate, but isn't flirting sort of one of the points of a Victorian Gentleman's Club? And this Gentleman's club has a nice group of young women (the women's chorus) which would make it impossible to avoid flirting. And... well.... (sigh) maybe I am thinking to hard about all of this and should just shrug my shoulders and say, who cares? I mean really, does it really matter if not all the pieces fit together?  After all the performance itself was terrific and it was a really fun production. I actually enjoyed this performance of the Mikado as much as any G&S performance I have been to in a long time, even if it did have the aftertaste of a bit of confusion for me. So I don't have an answer - this IS comic light opera.  All the jokes and satire were there and the performance was great.

     One additional issue which has sometimes caused folks to be uncomfortable with G&S is Gilbert's odd tendency to include an aging woman as a character whose aging becomes part of the joke.  These characters include Little Buttercup (Pinafore), Lady Jane (Patience), Dame Carruthers (Yeomen) and Katisha in this work. Even Sullivan was uncomfortable with this and pretty much demanded that Gilbert cease and desist, which he never really does though characters like Dame Hannah in Ruddigore and The Duchess of Plaza-Toro (Gondoliers) all have a bit more spunk and the aging jokes are (mercifully) gone, well, for the most part.  There is an interesting twist to all of this in Mikado as Katisha is not only older and consequently of failing beauty (this is still here) but Katisha also has a sadistic streak which makes her really kind of fun. "You won't hate me just because I am a little teensy-weensy bit bloodthirtsy will you?" she asks Ko-Ko. For this production Melissa Parks was perhaps the most memorable Katisha I have ever seen.  Not only did she have a huge powerful voice (Valküre power actually which made the act 1 finale absolutely thrilling!); and not only did she have perhaps the most incredible orange and black dress I have ever seen which made her stand completely apart from the rest of the cast, but she really played up the sadistic psychotic dimension and it was simply hilarious!  And not only that but she was matched in this by Zachery James as an equally sadistic and psychotic Mikado.  It was very effective and frankly it was really, really funny.
      I only have two other small (or not so small depending on your perspective) critiques - 1. Drake Dantzler has a lovely voice and he did a nice job as Nanki-Poo, but often he was so soft-spoken I could not hear his dialog. Yum-Yum too, but she was better. It is surprising for he is very experienced and really did a nice job otherwise.  I also had trouble understanding all of Ko-Ko's "Little List" song. There were no titles from this (though there were for every other song) and I suspect it might be because he was changing it for every performance.  Bravo, hats off - but between the laughing and the orchestra I just could not make it all out unfortunately. and 2. The conductor, Scott 
Schoonover did a nice job over all. His tempi were all great and the orchestra was well balanced with the stage. But I think he must have a thing for overtures as he cut Sullivan's wonderful Mikado overture down to almost nothing. He did the same thing to the Yeomen of the Guard overture last fall for Winter Opera (And to be fair, with OTSL did Pirates a few seasons ago they also cut the slow section out of that overture). All this overture cutting I find extremely disappointing. Those overtures are great pieces and need to be performed - especially the Mikado and Yeoman overtures, which were both written by Sullivan himself (unlike the Pirates overture which was written or I should say assembled by Sullivan's assistant Cellier.) I just don't understand the thinking behind this desire to cut the overtures.  Time will not be saved, in all cases the most time saved might have been maybe 5 minutes and, more importantly it completely destroys the form, and thus ruins the overture.  Why do it at all if it has to be cut so drastically - especially in the Mikado which begins with a relatively long orchestra introduction to the opening chorus.  Please - conductors - stop cutting G&S overtures!
     Finally, one thing I really liked a lot (aside from the great performance by the cast): the chorus - they were terrific. The men (and the women) especially had a nice full sound and not only that but they each worked on creating a unique character for themselves and it made the show really interesting. 
    I appreciate the director Eric Gibson's)attempt to find a new way to approach this work and it almost worked, and along the way it was a really great show. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Cincinnati - A Week of Wonderful Performances!

     Cincinnati Opera took on a fascinating focus this season with their choices of repertoire: "Die Fledermaus," "Fidelio," "Fellow Travelers," and "Tosca."  Fred Plotkin points out in his excellent article about the season that everyone of these operas deal with a dimension of freedom/bondage and that three of the 4 actually have at least one act set in a prison, whereas in the the 4th ("Fellow Travelers") the prison is a prison of the mind, a prison of hate and fear and suspicion.  I missed Fledermaus and Tosca, but I was able to attend Fidelio and Fellow Travelers.  Both performances were outstanding, both stagings were provocative and though-provoking.
     I'll start with Fidelio, Beethoven's only opera.  This work comes out of Beethoven's own enlightenment commitment to the principals of self-determination, justice and freedom.  These ideals run through the corpus of his work. Of course we live in different times and the face of the struggle for freedom and the struggle against injustice and prejudice, hate and fear has a different face in our times.  But even so the work is amazingly timely and its message speaks powerfully to the 21st century American context which is so incredibly divided by racial strife and violence and who have politicians who are decidedly not enlightened and committed to these ideals like Don Fernando but who rather use every opportunity to throw gas on the fire of fear, hate and division. Frankly there are no characters in Fidelio who even come close to the underhanded deceitfulness of some of our most powerful and divisive public figures.  Don Pizzaro is selfish and singleminded, seeking revenge and seeking to hide unknown crimes from the public but he is more up front about his priorities than what we are used to from our leaders, in my view at least.
     The singing and musical performance was top notch all the way through.  The orchestra was terrific and the conducting of Jun Märkl was also excellent. Special mention to the horns, principal oboe and the contrabassoon player for extraordinary playing.  I am always so thrilled to hear the contra in the grave digging scene.  Sometimes, for reasons I do not understand, the conductor will shush the contra and make it hard to hear, but not here.  This contra player beautifully shaped her phrases which gave me chills and added a dimension of horror to the proceedings on stage. Similarly the amazing oboe hallucination during the final section of Florestan's opening act 2 aria, where he sees in the darkness of his prison cell a vision of his angel wife Leonore, was incredibly well played. What inspired Beethoven to include this hallucination in this manner? I don't know, but it is a moment of pure genius and another one of the most chilling and thrilling moments in the opera. I similarly loved the heroic horns in Leonore's aria, but I also need to say that the strings were also terrific.  Beethoven is never a walk in the park for the strings and the Cincinnati Symphony string section were outstanding.  I only have one little quibble, and it is that I was sorry that the march in act 1 was not performed by the pit but rather performed by a recording of the orchestra through poor speakers. Nevertheless, I got the point. Happy march music played as new prisoners are marched in, stripped of their clothes and humanity as they become yet another prisoner.  It was another chilling moment in this great production. And I understand why they chose to use a recording in this way and it was effective.
     That brings me to the cast which was led by Christine Goerke as Leonore (Fidelio) and Russell Thomas as Florestan. Both have terrific powerful voices. I love Christine Goerke and have heard her in other performances and she is always terrific, and a great actress too.  But I had never heard Russell Thomas before and he is terrific. Fred Plotkin makes a point of pointing out that the chemistry between this white soprano and black tenor was amazing and there is a lesson in that for all of us. For my part I want to hear more of Russell Thomas! The supporting cast were also excellent. Nathan Stark was appropriately likable as the kind-hearted jailer Rocco. If only all those who have authority over others would treat those others as Rocco does his charges: with respect and dignity and kindness. Alas, I fear he is an anomaly. Thomas Bondelle was a fine Jacquino and Laura Tatulescu did a lovely job as Marzelline, though at times she was covered by the orchestra.  Together they brought a little welcome humor to this otherwise very serious reading of this opera. Nmon Ford similarly had trouble projecting over the orchestra and I felt he lacked the vocal gravitas needed for the role, but still he has a beautiful baritone voice and is a fine actor.  The chorus was simply amazing. The famous Prisoner's Chorus which comes near the end of act 1 was beautifully performed, and the final chorus and ensemble was really outstanding.
     The updated production worked perfectly in my view. Everything from the various gates that the cast had to open and move through with their key cards, to backstage crew members dressed as guards operating several spot lights which swept over the stage regularly to the control room guard monitoring a bunch of camera feeds to the dark terror of the solitary cell of Florestan were all chillingly effective. But what really hit me was the ending.  The opera ends with an almost "everyone lives happily every after since justice and truth have prevailed" kind of way.  But not here.  At the beginning of the scene the chorus emerged, women and children and male prisoners for a reunion scene.  Many of these women carried signs with photos of their missing or "disappeared" husbands, fathers and sons. This reminded me powerfully of the movement of the mothers and grandmothers in Chilé back in the 80's who formed a group to find the disappeared and call for justice. The chorus and ensemble that follows is all very thrilling and was performed beautifully and then everyone runs off stage at the end, towards a new life I suppose.  But - not everyone.  Left on stage is still one family - a mother and two small children with a sign.  Their husband and father was not among those who had been released.  Their husband and father was still disappeared.  The work of justice is not done. It continues.  And it continues for us as we all take a stand against indiscriminate violence, racism, hate in any form and the scapegoating of other human beings. This was a terrific production.

     Fellow Travelers deals with the homophobia which ran (and continues to run in some quarters today) rampant through American society and especially in the halls of power during the McCarthy era. The opera is based on a novel by Thomas Mallon which tells the fictional story of two young men who meet and fall in love and then are caught up in the "Lavender Scare" of the 50's.  So many Americans look back to the 1950's as if it were some kind of ideal and perfect time in American history, but this is a story of the dark underside of all of that happy perfection. The scene when Hawkins Fuller is questioned about his "tendencies" is simply chilling. In fact it is so pathetic that it would be almost funny if it were not actually based on what really happened to so many young men and women. And to think there are some among us who want to return to these fearful and live destroying ways now! Perhaps most poignant was the final tableau where actual photos of men and women whose lives were really destroyed during this period was revealed. It brought me to tears.
     The cast was led by two outstanding singer/actors - baritone Joseph Lattanzi was Hawk Fuller and brought an effective, seductive confident swagger to the role.  The young intern Timothy Laughlin who eventually ends up in a relationship with Hawk is played by tenor Aaron Blake. This young man is torn by his deep religious faith and his conservative ideals which stand at odds with his homosexuality. The remaining ensemble were also terrific.  Most of them performed more than one role each. Devon Guthrie deserves a notice for her beautiful portrayal of Mary Johnson, an administrative assistant in the State Department who has not only an open mind but a caring heart. She sees and understands, unlike just about everyone else.
     I will say that I had one of the worst seats in the house.  I didn't call for a ticket until the last minute and by then there was nothing left and in fact by the performance the house was completely sold out! This is fantastic! Well done. Even so, the box seats in this small chamber space made viewing the stage next to impossible, but I at least could see better than the woman next to me. Still the production was effective.  The acting superb. And the orchestra of 17 players (strings, flute, oboe, clarinet, 2 trombones and percussion) were terrific. Bravo to conductor Mark Gibson.
     I hope that this opera is picked up and performed a lot.  It deserves it. I said the same about OTSL's "Shalimar the Clown" and I feel the same about that work. But Fellow Travelers is a chamber opera - Shalimar is a much bigger piece and they both deal with timely and very different issues.
     Finally I want to say I loved the score. The influences of minimalism, medieval music and even jazz are so apparent but yet this composer has a distinctive voice. I hope to see this opera again and I hope that all of my opera friends will have a chance to see it as well.

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.