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'Macbeth' debuts on stainless steel set at Lyric Opera
By Scott C. Morgan | Daily Herald Staff

Lady Macbeth (Nadja Michael) mocks her husband (Thomas Hampson) after he feels remorse after killing King Duncan.

 

Dan Rest

The witches await the King of Scotland's arrival in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Verdi's "Macbeth" directed by Chicago Shakespeare Theater artistic director Barbara Gaines.

 

Robert Kusel

Macbeth (Thomas Hampson) and his wife (Nadja Michael) plot to bump off Macduff and his family in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Verdi's "Macbeth" directed by Chicago Shakespeare Theater artistic director Barbara Gaines.

 

Robert Kusel

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Published: 10/2/201 4:41 PM

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Location: Lyric Opera of Chicago at Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, (312) 332-2244, ext. 5600, LyricOpera.org

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 30; 2 p.m. Oct. 21 and 24

Running time: Three hours with one intermission

Tickets: $33-$207

Parking: Pay garages and some street parking

Rating: Violence, war, murder and drunkenness

Chicago Shakespeare Theater founder and artistic director Barbara Gaines is a firm believer that the ambition to obtain power and wield it over others is one of the timelessly constant and unfortunate aspects of human behavior.

So in her operatic directing debut, Gaines has chosen to set the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Verdi's "Macbeth" in a nondescript netherworld that straddles both the ancient and the modern (so no specific Scottish hallmarks like tartans or thistles).

Don't be surprised if you automatically think "Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion" or "Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall" when James Noone's shiny stainless steel set design is fully revealed to show a coven of playful (and in some instances flying) witches anticipating the arrival of the warrior Macbeth.

In Gaines' director's notes, she reveals that the curvy and shiny structures of star architect Frank Gehry did indeed inspire the look of this "Macbeth." (Though the hulking set's scorched and rusted lower-level surfaces hint at battle scars from ugly civil war or how the whole kingdom is going to pot once the Macbeths start reigning).

And what a power couple the Lyric has with the Macbeth of American baritone Thomas Hampson and German soprano Nadja Michael as his demonically scheming wife. Gaines and her stars depict what is clearly an unhealthy relationship between the two: she's the scheming trophy wife who is in the relationship solely for wealth and dominance, while he also wants power but is more conscience-torn.

Michael won't win awards for being the most beautifully sung Lady Macbeth you'll ever hear, what with her occasionally wayward pitch. But it's almost forgivable since Michael throws herself into the role (and into costume designer Virgil C. Johnson's slender and high-cut gowns) with such acting abandon that her sometimes jarring sound entirely suits her evil character.

Hampson plays Macbeth as strong warrior type who is both enthralled and resentful at his wife's power over him. Hampson's beautifully sung Macbeth covers the bases from his character's guilt at murdering King Duncan to the gusto-filled "bring it on" battle challenge right before his tragic end.

Two artists making Lyric Opera debuts in "Macbeth" also make their mark. The American tenor Leonardo Capalbo handles Macduff's mournful aria nicely, while Slovakian bass Stefan Kocan makes for an upstanding and morally strong Banquo.

Chorus master Donald Nally works wonders with the Lyric's beautifully sung chorus (particularly in the refugees' lament and the uplifting concluding anthem), while conductor Renato Palumbo paces the Lyric Opera Orchestra with precision and pomp.

If the overall performances are strong and clear, Gaines' bells-and-whistles-filled staging sometimes stumbles. Some set changes could have been executed with more exacting timing on opening night, while some of the special effects felt gimmicky (the witches' bubbly chandelier apparition was odd, and the production features a preponderance of hoisted and flying characters).

But Gaines succeeds in creating a constantly spooky mood throughout, even when Verdi's music is at its bounciest (Robert Wierzel aids immensely with his shadowy and high-color-saturated lighting design). So while some audiences may feel rudderless in Gaines' futurist and medieval feudal approach to "Macbeth," she gets the job done in the storytelling department of showing one couple's downfall in their ruthless and murderous grab for power.