On a dark rainy day in the midst of Toronto’s traffic chaos I was rendered speechless by the new Canadian Opera Company production of Verdi’s Macbeth directed by Sir David McVicar. I never knew this opera could move me so much. In the last act each scene was better than the last, building inexorably to the conclusion. I don’t want to give too much away.
Verdi would have been impressed.
Some of that is the work of a director making only a few changes from the original. While I try to go with the flow of directors updating and even revising operas, I’m always thrilled when they manage to bring it off without losing the essential thread of the story.
This was a team effort. Perhaps the single most important aspect is the magic running through Shakespeare’s Scottish play. If the chorus of witches Verdi created doesn’t persuade you in the first scene, there’s no point. The creepiness underlying this story of a husband and wife tempted to perform evil acts begins with witches making prophecies. The COC Chorus as a musical entity are led by Sandra Horst and sounded great, but they are usually the dramatic backbone of any good COC show too. The last time I saw this opera the witches were picturesque & well-sung, but never for a moment had me believing they were magical, let alone scary. This was different, better, scarier.
The designs from Set Designer John Macfarlane and Costume Designer Moritz Junge work with McVicar to take us deeper into a pit of gothic horror, employing additional non-singing performers. Here’s a photo plus a close-up showing something disturbing. But it’s disturbing in a good way.
And Shakespeare would have liked it as much as Verdi.
While Macbeth is a virtuoso vehicle for two singers, without the visceral groundwork laid in the first scene, it wouldn’t matter. So yes we were watching and listening to a thrilling pair of singing actors, namely Quinn Kelsey as Macbeth and Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Lady Macbeth.
Pendatchanska was announced as indisposed (aka unwell), but went on anyway. There were a few moments when I thought I detected a bit of extra care as she went for high notes, especially in her first scene. As she went on wow she got better. The sleep-walking scene in the last act was marked by an astonishing pathos, as the relentless monster who pushed her husband into acts of murder had become someone you could pity: which is the ideal. Amazing. Brilliant.
Kelsey brings the secure baritone with him that we’ve seen in previous Toronto appearances, a sound that reminds me a bit of Louis Quilico; in other words, he sounds like one of the greatest baritones of all time. Kelsey gave us lots of jagged edges, a portrayal that’s not very subtle: but then again that’s not how it’s written. His bel canto is superb, his tone beautiful almost every moment except when becoming so tormented as to cry out in pain.
There are many other wonderful performances I could mention, a big and mostly Canadian cast of strong performers. Adam Luther –aided by his beautiful costume—brought genuine star quality to his appearance as Malcolm. He and Matthew Cairns’ sweetly sung Macduff take over the opera towards the end. Clarence Frazer was a nasty murderer. Tracy Cantin made a solid impression in her scenes as lady in waiting to Lady Macbeth, including the sleep-walking scene alongside Vartan Gabrielian as a sympathetic doctor.
We were in capable hands with our conductor Speranza Scappucci, drawing electrifying sounds from the COC orchestra and chorus, while solidly keeping us rooted in a stylish bel canto reading.
I’m looking forward to seeing the show again. The run continues until May 20th, with soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska singing three of the remaining five performances as Lady Macbeth.