Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Washington National Opera opened the final production of its formal 2006-2007 season with Giuseppe Verdi’s “Macbeth” Saturday at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

The WNO’s contribution to the District’s massive, ongoing “Shakespeare in Washington” festival, this new production is highlighted by lavish virtual sets created by Paolo Micciche, who was responsible for the company’s intriguing but controversial light show version of Verdi’s “Aida” several seasons back when WNO was temporary exiled to Constitution Hall.

Verdi’s take on Shakespeare’s classic play follows the Bard’s story of power, murder, betrayal and revenge fairly closely except that the small coven of witches expands to an entire female chorus.

Mr. Micciche’s production is again bound to generate some controversy, although it solves the problem of having to provide more elaborate “sets” than the WNO could have afforded from the carpenters’ union. Mr. Micciche employs a series of semi-transparent scrims upon which he projects castles and gothic cathedral interiors, or hallucinatory, revolving images. The concept actually works for this gloomy tragic opera, whose guilt-ridden protagonist is haunted by ghosts of his most recently whacked rivals.

But other choices are puzzling. For example, Alberto Spiazzi’s costumes — solid red, black and white robes and tunics adorned with semi-geometric cross-hatching — are right out of “Spider-Man 3.” Likewise, what’s with the needless affectations: bouncing yoga-balls passed around by the cavorting witches and mirrors carried around by a young sprite as if to remind us to look into ourselves? The jury is still out on the giant carousel horses ridden by opposing soldiers in a pantomime of the final battle scene.

Fortunately, the singing from the principals was almost uniformly excellent. As Macbeth, baritone Lado Ataneli seemed uncertain in the early going but gained confidence as the story unfolded, and his work in the final act was crisp and decisive.

One was sorry to lose bass Vitalij Kowaljow’s wonderful Banquo so early in the proceedings. His is the rich, lustrous Slavic bass one comes to expect in Russian operas, but it works wondrously well in Verdi, too.

In smaller roles, tenors John Matz (Macduff) and Yingxi Zhang (Malcolm), bass-baritone Robert Cantrell (Doctor), and soprano Aundi Marie Moore (Lady-in-Waiting) added special touches to the ensemble as well.

But it is soprano Paoletta Marrocu who goes to the head of the class in this production. Her steely Lady Macbeth is loaded with ruthlessness and authority, and is clearly the driver for Macbeth’s nefarious deeds. Her rich, wide-ranging, well-supported, and supple instrument dominates when she is on stage, and easily cuts through Verdi’s Wagnerian orchestral forces. Except, perhaps, for one instance, she projected her high notes without strain, and dominated even in those passages where Lady Macbeth competes with the full chorus.

Unfortunately, opening night could not quite achieve synchronicity in spite of the terrific singing. Chorus, soloists and orchestra seemed not to be communicating well, particularly in the rapid finale to Act II, where conductor Renato Palumbo did a heroic job of getting his forces back onto the same page after they’d wandered off for a few bars. Wasn’t there enough rehearsal time? Or did the cast have difficulty seeing Maestro Palumbo through the scrims or the light show? Hopefully, WNO will be able to iron this out in the remaining performances.


WHO: Washington National Opera

WHAT: Verdi’s “Macbeth”

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Today and June 2 at 7 p.m., Thursday, Sunday, May 23, 29 at 7:30 p.m.

TICKETS AND INFORMATION: Call the box office at 202-295-2400, or visit


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