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OPERA REVIEW : Music Center Imposes Bizarre Kabuki Style on Verdi's 'Macbeth'

December 14, 1987|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

Verdi's "Macbeth"--or, if you will, "Macbetto"--is a difficult enterprise, even under the best of conditions. Here, after all, is Shakespeare's complex Scottish tragedy filtered through primitive Italian sensibilities, with the speeches sung.

At the end of his career, Verdi might have succeeded in making this dramatic opus operatic, as he did so emphatically with "Otello" and "Falstaff." But "Macbeth" belongs to an earlier, more innocent age.

The first version was completed in 1847, when the composer was only 34. He came up with some drastic second thoughts in 1865. Even here, however, the inequities of style, stress and impact remain.

At one extreme, "Macbeth" offers naive, backward-looking routines--rinky-dink choruses for the witches and soldiers, formula arias for the male principals, an anticlimactic ending.

At the other extreme, the opera reveals strokes of forward-looking genius--the great second-act concertato, the protagonist's final monologue, and just about every note written for his proud, scheming, ultimately distraught Lady.

The new production of "Macbeth," introduced Friday night by the Music Center Opera in conjunction with the Canadian Opera of Toronto, doesn't exactly present "Macbeth" under the best of conditions. That is an understatement.

As staged (wrongheadedly) by Elijah Moshinsky, designed (cheaply) by Wolfram Skalicki and lit (dimly) by Michael Whitfield, the production flirts with gimmickry, ineptitude and quasi-modernism for its own dubious sake. It is time, apparently, to reinterpret the tragedy of the Thane of Cawdor.

The official apologia assures us that the action takes place, as usual, in 11th-Century Scotland. Pay no attention. Instead, if you can, pay Noh attention.

For reasons unclear to the most sympathetic observer (and for reasons unexplained in the otherwise informative program magazine), Moshinsky and his accomplices have decided to play "Macbeth" as a modified Kabuki extravaganza.

Perhaps this geographical transposition is meant as some sort of compensation for the forthcoming Music Center "Mikado." In the Gilbert-and-Sullivan comedy, the action, for once, will not take place in Japan.

Be that as it may, the current Macbeth masquerades as a swaggering Samurai warrior. The almost empty stage bears minimal props and silly symbols. Figures in black change the set in full view of the audience, and often stand around flashing portable spotlights in the principals' faces. Painterly projections on a billowing cyclorama curtain hint clumsily at specific locales. The picturesque witches cringe on a turntable.

The resident Lady-in-Waiting strikes Suzuki poses. Cooperative Banquo gets bumped off, most awkwardly, while asked to lie atop a banquet table. The chorus functions as a stylized Bugaku unit until, in the lament of the Scottish refugees, an unexpected surge of soggy naturalism suddenly takes over.

Macbeth has to hide behind a gigantic door that leads nowhere when he is supposed to exit to do the dirty deed upon Duncan. Lady Macbeth follows suit when she retrieves the dagger from the king's corpse.

Even worse, the poor prima donna is forced to listen while a recorded voice reads her husband's letter for her over the public address system. She must negotiate perilous stairs during "Vieni! t'affretta," creep around an endless groaning board during the Brindisi and manage the Sleepwalking Scene while confined to a quaint and tiny wooden bridge. Under the circumstances, one wants to forgive her for wearing costumes, presumably her own, that conflict violently with the surroundings.

Yes. We remember. Kurosawa attempted similar translations when he turned "Macbeth" into "Throne of Blood" and "King Lear" into his more recent film, "Ran." But that was masterly art. This is ludicrous artifice.

The evening still might have been salvaged, to a degree, if the casting had been inspired and the music-making dazzling. No such luck.

Placido Domingo, the tenor who so desperately wants to be a conductor, waved his arms energetically and authoritatively. He kept things moving at a brisk--sometimes too brisk--pace, favored big sounds and proved that he appreciates rousing climaxes. He didn't offer much dynamic sensitivity, however, didn't coax optimum precision from the expanded Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and didn't pay much attention to matters of cohesion, mood or expressive accent.

The problem of having him in the pit is, no doubt, the price we must pay for the pleasure of having him on the stage.

Justino Diaz, the bass who so desperately wants to be a baritone, mustered the high tessitura of Macbeth with surprising ease and nice macho force. Although, he could not produce the seamless legato and introspective nuances one longs for in "Pieta, rispetto, amore," he gave a solid, conscientious, stylish performance.

Grace Bumbry sang Lady Macbeth. She replaced Mara Zampieri, who was to have replaced Linda Roark Strummer who was to have replaced Mara Zampieri. Don't bother to figure that out.

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