Macbeth closing performance: women have it harder

Three weeks ago I reviewed the powerful opening night of the new Sir David McVicar production of Verdi’s Macbeth from the Canadian Opera Company. Today I came full circle watching the last show of the run including exciting changes in the cast. Miracles do happen. As you may have heard the COC gave the understudy a chance to play the lead. Tracy Cantin who had been playing Lady in waiting has been promoted, singing Lady Macbeth for the last few shows.

Long ago I remember hearing that women have it harder, at least in the theatre world. In school I recall that as a guy going out for an audition chances are you’d get a part just by showing up, because there were so many male parts. Meanwhile, there were many more women seeking parts, competing for far fewer roles (at least in the classical rep). The two operas the COC offer might be a perfect case in point. Macbeth is entirely men except for Lady Macbeth and her Lady in waiting. Tosca is even worse, cast entirely with men, plus that one female role, namely Tosca.

I heard Tracy today, undertaking a huge part. For starters, it’s a lot of notes, almost all sung perfectly, with personality. The young singer took the stage, seizing her opportunity. Tracy was opposite Metropolitan Opera star Quinn Kelsey, who made his role debut as Macbeth. Quinn has likely been singing the arias and ensembles over and over for weeks, expecting to take the stage in the first Macbeth of his career. While Tracy learned the music, you wonder, did she ever expect to be singing a performance? It’s rare that an understudy goes on, especially in a big role. I wonder how many staging rehearsals—if any—Tracy actually enjoyed. Chances are this has all been last-minute, as she was suddenly handed this opportunity. She surely didn’t have nearly as much time to prepare as Quinn did for his part.

I think Tracy sang very well, even if the role isn’t a perfect fit, requiring a slightly different voice, perhaps someone older, perhaps a darker sound. The part is a nasty figure pushing her husband to murder, whose last appearance is as a sleep- walker struggling with her guilt. It’s hard to sing, hard to perform convincingly. Tracy was well-received by an enthusiastic audience hollering their support for her.

Tracy Cantin enjoying the ovation from the audience

Charlotte Siegel replaced Tracy as the new Lady in waiting, sounding great in the sleep-walking scene with Lady Macbeth and the doctor.

For this my second time watching the show, every bit as enjoyable as the first time, I had a few more observations.

I enjoyed Quinn Kelsey’s performance. There are times he’s making beautiful sounds, other times when he’s dramatizing, making rougher sounds with his voice, maybe for dramatic effect. I’m hyper-sensitive to this because I saw traviata twice in the past week, and have been compulsively discussing with friends the ways film and TV are leading us to expect a more verismo style of acting and singing in operas from Verdi that were created in a bel canto style. I may sound old-fashioned, but I wish he’d trust his voice, which is so beautiful.

I heard stories about a previous Lady Macbeth Elinor Ross, who sang back in the time of Louis Quilico. Perhaps she sought to be in character? I heard that on the opening night she didn’t appear for her curtain call, forcing Quilico to go out, and then leaving Ross to make the last bow. I don’t think Quilico was happy about that. I also heard that at least once the Lady in waiting for that production received chewing gum in her hand from the diva as she was going onstage. Maybe you get a more true to life portrayal of such a hateful character if you misbehave backstage, making your cast-mates angry.

I found myself wondering, after reading other commentaries, whether we think of the witches as evil or not. Myself, I say no. They are like a character in the opera, perhaps the most important one in the whole show. The COC chorus were their usual strong performers, the witches especially. Aha, all those talented women in the chorus…

There’s so much Canadian talent, clearly visible in both Tosca and Macbeth. Knowing what was coming didn’t lessen the impacts of the last scenes. I found myself even more verklempt at the end than last time. It’s a combination of the singing of the two tenors I wrote in my review of the opening “Adam Luther as Malcolm and Matthew Cairns’ sweetly sung Macduff take over the opera towards the end. ” Luther’s voice has a genuine Verdi squillo, an interesting contrast to Cairns’ gentler sound.

The orchestra and chorus are the stars of some scenes, especially the last ones. Conductor Speranza Scappucci drove the last part of the opera to a rousing conclusion, a little bit of a risorgimento in the removal of an oppressive and tyrannical king (Macbeth) in the battle at the end, celebrated in the final chorus. I can’t get those melodies out of my head, and come to think of it that’s okay, I like it.

The COC’s spring season continues with performances of Tosca May 21, 23, 27, at the Four Seasons Centre.

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