“The King of Opera is now The King of Scotland” proclaimed on an LA Opera website banner. When Darko Tresnjak's seriously crazy new production of Verdi's Macbeth opened the LA Opera season Saturday night, General Director Plácido Domingo, in magnificent voice, sang the title role for the first time in Los Angeles. It was his 28th role with LA Opera and his sixth time as a baritone. When LA Opera presented Macbeth for the first time (in 1997), Domingo was in the pit, which was also his LA Opera conducting debut. He was ready to go Saturday: in addition to his long-standing relationship with Music Director James Conlon, he and Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk appeared in a series of performances of Macbeth in Valencia, Spain, last year.
In the pit, Maestro Conlon was conducting the early Verdi potboiler for the 50th time in his career, as well being the eighth production he has ushered into conception, the most of any opera, surprising considering its audience appeal, only in retrospect, because it was once maligned and misunderstood.
On Saturday night, nine androgynous, saucy, rambunctious dancing witches with thick, three-foot tails and exuberant tassels, whose heritage included the Wizard of Oz and the Lion King, stole the show. Against a multi-level, highly dynamic but delightfully flat backdrop, this sexy nonet – voiced in razor sharp, warm and sumptuous fashion by the very mobile LA Opera Chorus – not only suggested, tempted, devised and took savage revenge, they reflected the leading characters' inner thoughts when they had nothing else to do. They crept around, insinuated, climbed up the backdrop itself with the flair of the Cirque du Soleil. They got the only good costumes, the best special effects, including fire-pits, cauldrons and other devilish accoutrements, and their backs were either emblazoned or branded with painfully red, cape-like marks.
Although Verdi's 1847 take on Shakespeare was only one step up from the Classics Illustrated version, which was well encouraged by Tresnjak's staging, Domingo inhabited the role as if, somehow, Verdi had fully understood the distresses and speculations that Shakespeare put into the minds of his two lead characters. It was as if Domingo at some level, drawing on his vast experience of playing virtually all the major Verdi roles, extrapolated what the old composer might have done with the character. Domingo's deeply tired, sad Macbeth on Saturday night, who bonded with the audience as the enormous loss he had suffered for a worthless crown began to beat him down, could have been the result.
The cast acted and sang as honestly as Domingo. Semenchuk seemed more comfortable with the human side of Lady Macbeth, in the throes of blood on her hands, than the play-acting, domineering one she played before intermission, and sang so magnificently in that human-ness that she won the audience's heart in a heartless role. An extremely sweet-toned Arturo Cruz-Chacon's Macduff broke hearts with his big aria. Roberto Tagliavini's Banquo made stentorian, rounded sounds throughout his frequent re-appearances as Macbeth's zombie.
And as always, the LA Opera Orchestra, made up of LA's best, sounded smooth and powerful, always responding to Conlon's command and together totally engaged in producing an absorbing narrative flow. It is a wonderfully pliant, virtuosic orchestra, and their ability to dazzle when needed with instruments like gurgling woodwinds and high-flying French horns, and to impress upon the action an assortment of vivid theatrical emotions, colors and tricks, was sublime.
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