CHICAGO (AP) - Verdi's "Macbeth" is one of the composer's most thrilling youthful accomplishments, brimming with a dark vitality perfectly suited to the tale of the murderous Scottish king and his bloodthirsty wife.
The new production that opened the Lyric Opera season Friday night captures much of this brooding quality, especially in its stark and sleek metallic sets designed by James Noone.
But to a frustrating extent it's undermined by problematic performances from the two lead singers, Thomas Hampson and Nadja Michael.
Hampson, a veteran American baritone renowned for his burnished tone and interpretive powers, has a voice that's one size too small for the histrionic demands of Verdi's title character. In moments when the natural beauty of his sound can shine through he is effective, but too often he is forced into a kind of blustery shouting.
Michael, a German soprano making her Lyric debut, evokes visceral thrills with her penetrating top notes, of which Verdi gave Lady Macbeth more than her share. But the part also calls for a powerful lower register, something Michael lacks. Worse, she has a tendency to sing flat in her middle register.
Still, she's a fascinating performer to watch, her tall, willowy figure and long blond hair set off effectively by Virgil C. Johnson's slinky, low-cut dresses.
Director Barbara Gaines, founder of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater but new to opera, rightly tries to take advantage of her leading lady's natural assets by emphasizing the sexual bond between the couple. It's a perversely dysfunctional relationship: Their most passionate embrace comes right after they have plotted yet another murder.
In a dream sequence, the childless Macbeth imagines his wife has brought him their two sons to play with. This has some poignancy because it comes moments after the witches have told him it will be Banquo's sons who inherit the throne. Finally, in Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene, she approaches a sleeping Macbeth, who rejects her advances _ as if to suggest this is what has brought on her madness.
These are all intriguing notions, but there is too little chemistry or connection between Hampson and Michael to make them fully work. Much of the time, husband and wife seem almost to be performing in separate orbits.
"Macbeth" isn't quite a two-person show. Verdi allots one memorable aria each to Banquo, Macbeth's one-time friend and later victim, and to Macduff, who eventually vanquishes the villain. In these roles, Slovakian bass Stefan Kocan and Italian-American tenor Leonardo Capalbo, respectively, turn in modestly effective performances.
Conducting the Lyric orchestra, Renato Palumbo keeps the tempos brisk _ even rushed at times, causing the players and singers to fall out of sync.
Where Noone and Gaines have succeeded most is in creating a chilly, ominous atmosphere for the opera. Even before it starts, the audience is greeted by a metallic curtain that harshly reflects lights from the auditorium. At the bottom is a painted forest, a reminder of Macbeth's downfall, when Birnam Wood shall "come to Dunsinane."
The opening scene is humorously spooky, with the three witches flying in, not on broomsticks but in harness. One of these flying witches later rescues Banquo's son, Fleance, who instead of running away from his father's killers, is airlifted to safety. (Are the witches ensuring that their prophecy comes true that he will eventually become king?)
A wonderful flame made of wind-blown fabric and lit from within burns center stage. Large curved metallic walls form the backdrop _ a concept said to be inspired by Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion at Chicago's Millennium Park.
In the next scene, Lady Macbeth's entrance is excitingly staged, as she appears in a gold-tinged boudoir shaped like a cylinder that comes out from the rear of the stage. The banquet scene is dominated by an elongated, misshapen table, over which hangs a garish chandelier in which the bloody corpse of Banquo will reveal itself to a hallucinating Macbeth.
By the second half, however, Gaines and Noone seem to have run out of fresh ideas and the staging rather limps to a conclusion, redeemed at the very end by a burst of sunlight to replace the gloom and artificial lighting that have prevailed all night.