Imagine a tattered red curtain, blocking the set but revealing several bodies, bound head to toe in grey, hanging from the ceiling by their feet. It looks like the home of a malevolent, human spider - its prey a silent presence overhead. This is the opening of Verdi's Macbeth, at Boston Lyric Opera.

Erik Jacobs for Boston Lyric Opera © 2011
Erik Jacobs for Boston Lyric Opera
© 2011

From the moment the audience enters the theatre, there is a feeling that something evil is lurking, and it's not just the chorus. Prophetic outcasts swarm the stage, swirling around Macbeth and Banquo and telling of Macbeth's rise to power and the future of Banquo's descendants. They infect Macbeth with their madness, sending him home a corrupted version of himself.

Verdi's music is haunting and tense. It creates a painting of sound in which the action takes place. So emotive is his score that one can, with closed eyes, not miss a bit of the storyline. But you won't want to miss seeing it. It encompasses all the emotions of fear, greed, envy, remorse, love and hope, chronicling the descent into madness and a hard-won victory. It requires very strong singers, capable of a large emotional range and convincing stage presence.

Lady Macbeth (Carter Scott) goes famously mad, but it is her husband (Daniel Sutin) who acts on the psychological poison. I was glad to see Darren K. Stokes return to BLO as Banquo (I last saw him in A Midsummer Night's Dream last season). While I enjoyed watching him shake his “gory locks,” it was his time on stage with son Fleance (Elijah Jean-Pierre) that humanized his character. The most heartbreaking is Macduff (Richard Crawley), whose family is slaughtered in his absence. His aria received one of only a few bursts of applause during the evening – the overall lack of which could only be due to the audience's collective holding of breath.

The set design for Boston Lyric Opera's production was by John Conklin, a recent National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honors recipient. Stage Director was David Schweizer. Costumes were by Nancy Leary, with lighting design by Robert Wierzel. This creative team evoked the sense of an age-old illness underpinning Macbeth's murderous reign. Death is a constant companion and a very real presence on this set. The chorus is never far away and is always unsettling in their movements and song.

The set changes are swift and, given that some of them are angled like guillotine blades, wonderfully unnerving. Sets serve to focus the action rather than to indicate a specific location. Windowed walls, lit hot and white from an unseen source, descend from the fly loft. Stairs and scaffolding edge the set on which the chorus rattles and shuffles. One stair in particular is scaled so when the people sitting there hold the railing, it looks like they are poised to deliver yet another death-blow, with arms angled to stab. Or perhaps that's just this patron's paranoia showing.

While it stays true to both the language of music and text, this is a contemporary setting with modern frames of reference. It is reflective of opera companies' hope to attract new audiences, by making classic works approachable and intriguing. It is graphic – graphic as in illustration, not violence. The violence in this production (and there is a lot) needs no overwrought acting or sensationalism to be felt. The strong presence of the company, set, and music, are enough.