Sunday, July 7, 2013

REVIEW: LBO's Macbeth

photo by Keith Ian Polakoff

Long Beach Opera recently closed their 2013 season with a sold out production of Ernest Bloch's Macbeth. This US professional premiere of Bloch's only opera took place at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro. One of the LBO's unique draws is their creative venue selection. Not being tied down to a single venue allows them the option of presenting work at spots like the Aquarium of the Pacific, the Gallery Expo Center, or San Pedro's Warner Grand Theatre.

Inside the port's World Cruise Center, the stage was framed by two bleachers facing each other with a long wooden table inbetween. This table served as a multipurpose stage, representing the various rooms of Cawdor. The various incarnations of this table were facilitated by lighting designer Dan Weingarten's colorful palette. A chaparral-like thicket of chairs filled either end of this table, and they were also used to great narrative effect. The orchestra was almost completely hidden behind a black scrim on one end of the room,  as was the chorus.

While artistic and general director Andreas Mitisek's unconventional staging was engaging in and of itself, I would have liked to see more interaction with the unique aspects of the space. When LBO produced Gavin Bryar's The Paper Nautilus at the Aquarium of the Pacific, they incorporated the upper balcony, as well as the 30 foot tank behind the stage. At the port, the room seemed to function more as an anonymous black box. True, the long thin space suggested that particular stage layout, but it was one I could have imagined seeing at other venues, like Santa Monica's Highways. However, the ingenuity of prior productions suggests that this was due to factors like port security, being set in one of the busiest ports in the country, rather than any lack of creativity.

photo by Keith Ian Polakoff
During the performance, it became apparent that I have never seen an opera performance so near. There is almost always some sort of proscenium, pit, or other distance implying the fourth wall. This close proximity added an intriguing intimacy to the performance. Sitting right by to the singers, their voices didn't sound amplified, as they often do these days. Panamanian baritone Nmon Ford's rich voice filled the room as Macbeth, as did that of LBO regular Suzan Hanson, who played the role of Lady Macbeth.

One could hear that the score had moments of nuanced orchestration, though the details were blurred by distance, and a literal and acousmatic scrim. As an orchestral feature, this would have been unacceptable, but as accompaniment for an opera it was perfectly fitting. The exact same could be said of the chorus that occasionally sprouted out of the music.

Written between 1904 and 1909, Bloch's music felt like a time capsule from a fragile era, right before Stravinsky and/or Schoenberg rang in the de facto 20th century. Though the narrative parallels are inexact, it is worth considering Bloch's Macbeth as indicative of the musical, social, and political circumstances that charged these diametric musical factions, as well as the unrest that would consume Europe for the next 40 years. I wonder what could be said along similar lines of local LA composer Veronika Krausas' The Mortal Thoughts of Lady Macbeth?

LBO's 2014 season promises to be an interesting one, featuring Duke Ellington's Queenie Pie, John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer, Stravinsky's Soldier Tale (adapted by Kurt Vonnegut) Wynton Marsalis' A Fiddler's Tale, and David Lang's The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.

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