It takes some brashness (and perhaps just a little bit of megalomania) on the part of a composer to choose Macbeth, of all of the Bard’s plays, to set to music. As if one can ignore that in the hearts and minds of most listeners, Verdi had the first, last, and only word in musical adaptations of Shakespeare’s drama of bloody intrigue. A no less daunting task even in the first decade of the 20th century when the Swiss-born composer Ernest Bloch, still in his 20s, matched the Italian composer head-on in his own setting of the work.

Suzan Hanson and Nmon Ford © Keith Ian Polakoff
Suzan Hanson and Nmon Ford
© Keith Ian Polakoff

Is it better than Verdi’s? Long Beach Opera’s energetic production – only the third ever and the very first professional production on US soil – on 23 June proved that it deserves mention in the same breath.

Bloch, who later in life settled in the United States and became a naturalized citizen, was one of musical history’s great eclectics, producing a body of work that is often fascinating and highly original, yet somehow never quite in sync with its era, with popular appeal seemingly just beyond its grasp. Only his Schelomo for cello and orchestra gets an occasional hearing these days.

His Macbeth too sounds a little out of joint with its time, hewing closely to an idiom wrought from the influences of Wagner, Karl Goldmark, Meyerbeer, and Borodin; seemingly unaware of developments from the likes of Schoenberg and his circle, or the perfumed total chromaticism of Scriabin, all of whom were active at the time of the opera’s 1910 première.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss the music as derivative. Bloch’s, rich and stirring musical language demands to be appreciated on its own terms. His Macbeth is no exception. Comparisons to Verdi or to anybody else is pointless.

Its 150 minutes – presented without a break – go by at a good clip, effectively maintaining listener interest and dramatic thrust.

The stark production, set up at San Pedro’s World Cruise Center, was no less effective in maintaining the work’s momentum. The audience sat on a pair of risers that surrounded the stage, which allowed listeners to clinically dissect the action as much as simply watch it.

Andreas Mitisek, Long Beach Opera’s head, pulled double duty as stage director and production designer, though he passed on the conducting duties to Benjamin Makino, who led the 30-odd-strong orchestra. Though the score was snipped at points, certain roles combined to save time, and the orchestra reduced, enough of the original’s opulence shined through just the same. The ensemble’s occasional rawness only enhanced the propulsive drive of the opera.

Baritone Nmon Ford amply conveyed the power and tragic grandeur of his namesake role. Suzan Hanson’s soprano had about it a Wagnerian power and splendor that were simply ideal. Her diction was excellent.

The option to use Bloch’s 1950s English-language adaptation of the libretto was an excellent idea, sounding perfectly idiomatic. Just another welcome surprise from this always surprising and never boring opera company.

****1