Murky Business: Macbeth at the Canadian Opera Company

Verdi – Macbeth

Macbeth – Quinn Kelsey
Banco – Önay Köse
Lady Macbeth – Alex Penda
Dama – Tracy Cantin
Macduff – Matthew Cairns
Malcolm – Adam Luther
Medico – Vartan Gabriellian
Sicario – Roland Piers

Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Canadian Opera Company Orchestra / Speranza Scappucci.
Stage director – David McVicar.

Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto, Ontario.  Sunday, April 30th, 2023.

This visit to see Macbeth at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto was my first there since 2014.  The Four Seasons Centre, the company’s handsome home, sounds spectacular.  Which makes it doubly frustrating that the performance was frequently punctuated by cellphones vibrating.  The performance was also marred due to the house deciding to admit latecomers at the start of Lady Macbeth’s opening scena.  There were major traffic issues in downtown Toronto today and it’s regrettable that the house didn’t choose to add a slightly longer pause, bring the house lights up for a moment, and give the latecomers time to join their seats.  Especially as, rather than use the empty seats at the back, they were allowed to go to their actual seats and many of the latecomers needed a lot of time to get there.  The result was that enjoyment of Lady Macbeth’s big opening moment was indeed compromised.

Photo: © COC / Michael Cooper

For this new production of Macbeth, a coproduction with Chicago, the staging was confided to David McVicar.  The COC has assembled a very interesting cast with Quinn Kelsey in the title role, Alex Penda as his Lady, and Speranza Scappucci in the pit.  McVicar’s staging gives something to look at. It’s gloomily lit, which at least helps the COC with any energy price increases.  The action appears to take place in some kind of church.  As the evening progresses, the church evolves into an empty space, the crucifix at the front used to kill Banco.  I imagine McVicar is attempting to make a point about a regime change and the evil of giving up religion, but it’s hard to see if that is indeed the case.  It isn’t that his staging is devoid of ideas – staging the ballet as the Macbeths dreaming of enjoying a family life with three children, brought attention to their childlessness and was certainly a thoughtful touch.  It’s just that there were far too many elements that seemed to be an attempt to compensate for actually directing the principals.  Having the opening witches’ chorus staged with the chorus sitting in rows, swaying in formation, randomly lifting up their skirts to show that they’re not real Scotswomen, or making synchronized movements lifting their wrists up and down – I don’t think they were simulating milking cows – were all simply risible.  My seat neighbours thought it was hilariously funny.  Similarly, the soldiers gyrating around as if they had a flea infestation in their costumes during the coro di sicari also seemed random.

Photo: © COC / Michael Cooper

Direction of the principals was perfunctory.  They were simply parked on the stage to emote to the front.  Fortunately, with singing actors of the calibre of Penda and Kelsey, they were able to transcend the limitations of the staging to give highly convincing performances.  As if desperate to inject drama into his staging, McVicar had the chorus yell randomly, shouting ‘salve Macbetto’ and drowning out the banda as the Macbeths processed in after being made king and queen.  The close of ‘la patria tradita’ was greeted with the chorus making bloodthirsty noises, which again, just seemed ridiculous and did not inject any additional drama.  At least the chorus was game and got into the spirit of things, but it just felt unnecessary. 

Musically, things were a lot more positive.  Kelsey gave us a superb Macbeth.  His chestnut-toned baritone is somewhat grainy and there was a tendency for the legato to be aspirated in places.  His breath control, however, is a thing of wonder.  It felt that he sang his opening ‘Due vaticini compiuti or sono’ on a single breath, such was the ease with which he sustained the line.  The voice is even from top bottom and his Italian is impeccable, pulling out meaning from the text.  He sang his ‘Pietà, rispetto, amore’ with long lines, a ringing top, and the kind of sheer musical understanding that cannot be taught.  In so many respects, it felt that Kelsey gave me a singing lesson today.  Seriously impressive.

Photo: © COC / Michael Cooper

An announcement was made for Penda’s Lady Macbeth, that she was indisposed and begging our indulgence.  I must admit that she did sound slightly tentative in her opening scena, probably not helped by the disruption of the late seating.  We got both verses of ‘or tutti, sorgete’ and the second was appropriately and stylishly ornamented.  Penda soared over the ensemble in the Act 1 finale, capping it with an electrifying high D-flat at the close.  Her ‘la luce langue’ was thrilling, the resolution in the way she declaimed ‘è necessario’ searingly brought out and she turned the corners in the brindisi with confidence.  Her sleepwalking scene was riveting, pulling back the tone to a thread, almost schizophrenic in the changes of dynamics, and if her closing high D-flat was slightly under the note, that was understandable given the circumstances.  Penda gave so generously of herself for us today, crossing the registers with ease, fearlessly exploiting a generous chestiness.  She was sensational. 

Photo: © COC / Michael Cooper

Önay Köse gave us a handsomely-sung Banco.  As with Kelsey and Penda, his diction was immaculate, giving his singing additional impact, finding real meaning and humanity in his ‘Come dal ciel precipita’.  His bass has liquid warmth and opens up with generosity as he descends into the depths.  Matthew Cairns was an extrovert Macduff.  His tenor has an agreeable brightness in the middle, but the top sounds disconnected and his Italian is rather Anglophone in flavour.  The remainder of the cast was adequate, with Tracy Cantin giving us a Dama of liquid clarity of tone and Vartan Gabriellian a Dottore of focused resonance.  Sandra Horst’s chorus was enthusiastic – the sopranos and mezzos vibrated generously, while the tenors and basses dispatched their music with undeniable gusto. 

Photo: © COC / Michael Cooper

Scappucci led a reading that brought out a rainbow of colour of orchestral sound.  There was a lyricism to her reading that felt ideally Italianate, the voicing of the orchestra lines seemed to sing just as much as the vocal ones.  This is very much a matter of personal taste, but I did wish that Scappucci had asked the strings to play with sharper attack and minimal vibrato.  Instead, there was a poise to Scappucci’s reading that felt more old-school Italian.  Her tempi were very sensible, never too fast or too slow.  I very much appreciated the colour she found in the score – for instance, the punchy chords at the start of ‘Macbeth, Macbeth ov’è? Dov’è l’usurpator?’ seemed to sound redolent of highland music.  There were a few isolated passages of stage-pit coordination going slightly awry in the opening witches’ chorus, but this will surely iron itself out during the course of the run, given that today was only the second of seven performances. 

Musically, there was so much that gave satisfaction today.  The principal trio was thrillingly brought to life by Kelsey, Penda and Köse.  It was also conducted with a profound musical understanding and intelligence, and was well played by the house orchestra.  McVicar’s staging was something to look at least, but far too often felt simply amateurish in ambition.  If the house had been concerned about upsetting donors, it could have imported Loy’s gothic horror staging from Geneva – that had an intelligence and sense of drama missing here.  The audience received the cast with a generous ovation – with particular cheers for Kelsey and Penda.

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