SFO: `Macbeth’ and the Colors of Christmas

By Janos Gereben (San Francisco: 11/13/07)

"We’ve been good, but we can’t last
Hurry Christmas, hurry fast
Want a plane that loops the loop
Me, I want a hula-hoop
We can hardly stand the wait
Please Christmas, don’t be late."

Relax, Alvin, Christmas came early to the War Memorial. There was the
hula-hoop you wanted, for the witches in frumpy red dresses, some of the
Chorus appeared bathed in spring-green light, a bright green typewriter
floated about, red blood was smeared about generously, Lady Macbeth
lurched on the rooftop (her safety harness looking like the chain on
Ghost of Christmas Future), and so on.

The 1983 cultural landmark of "Alvin and the Chipmunks" has a badly
needed updated remake coming to theaters this month, and – not to be
left behind – the San Francisco Opera has its red-and-green Euro-doo-doo
pre-Christmas presentation of the 1847 opera. Cheers, everyone!

Of Verdi’s Shakespeare operas, "Otello" and "Falstaff" are among the
undisputed masterpieces of the genre. The third one, "Macbeth," is not
quite up there, but to many of us, it’s a stirring, treasured music
drama, enhancing, illuminating the Bard’s words. PierLuigi Pizzi’s
production here 11 years ago was a magnificent realization of it, still
clear in the memory.

In San Francisco Opera’s new production, opening Wednesday night in the
War Memorial, director David Pountney’s half- (no, un-)baked concepts
were quite at variance with the creative, fortuitous relationship
between playwright and composer. Here, there was neither respect nor a
modicum of common sense shown to the Scottish Play or to tragic,
murderous Macbetto.

Vying for a brass ring along with the worst cases of the Pamela
Rosenberg era (which favored post-modern, jarring perversities, trendy
and/or out-of-style European cultural phenomena masquerading as
avant-garde High Art), the Pountney travesty hails from Zurich, but now
it is owned outright by David Gockley’s company. As if rental alone
wouldn’t have been disastrous enough; San Francisco not only "bought
it," the company will now attempt to sell or rent the Thing… and, of
course, revive it.

Hula-hoops and typewriters be damned, the real problem from Pountney and
set designer Stefanos Lazaridis is an ever-present box, something
similar to Dick Cheney’s man-size walk-in Mosler safes, but with
transparent shoji doors and walls of mirrors. The box separates the
characters from each other and from the audience, as if Shakespeare
hadn’t already provided sufficient conflict and alienation. Among other
sightems: a big "W" on the back of a leather jacket as the chorus sings
of "the homeland… this oppressed land of ours." So much for the
Christmas spirit.

And so, how did the evening go?

Surprisingly well, except for an over-all lack of musical excitement,
the cast and chorus preoccupied with jumping through, well, hoops. San
Francisco audiences are now experienced and tough enough to ignore
childish attempts to puzzle and shock (there is nothing as static as
EuroTrash’s superficial, arrogant, narcissistic assault on "static,
conventional opera"), and against all odds, they focus on the music. And
there, we have Verdi’s pulsing, seductive music, Thomas Hampson’s
magnificent performance in the title role, and Massimo Zanetti’s fluent,
well-controlled conducting, a veritable antidote to the visual excesses.

So, if you ignore the chipmunks, Hampson and the music will provide
great opera. The baritone IS Macbeth, royal, ambitious, wicked,
confused, murderous, falling apart – all with a heroic/lyric/gorgeous
voice, perfect diction, and commanding both attention and sympathy.
Hampson, in a concert performance, would have given us a real, a great

Soprano Georgina Lukács, who made her United States opera debut here as
Tosca, is Lady Macbeth. Her large and harsh voice happens to fit the
role well; at times, she sounds on the edge of wrong notes, but she
pulls back, makes her arias count. Raymond Aceto is the fine Banquo,
Alfredo Portillo struggled with Macduff’s aria, Noah Stuart made an
impressive vocal/dramatic appearance as Malcolm.

Note to Pountney (and his associate, Nicola Raab, who handled the stage
direction here): if the women’s chorus is lined up facing a wall, it may
be difficult for them to see the conductor or even a monitor. If they
sound like chipmunks, it’s not their fault; it’s yours.

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