Long Beach Opera revives Bloch’s ‘Macbeth’


Long Beach Opera unearthed a genuine rarity for the final production of its season Saturday night and gave it a worthy welcome back. The company, which is known for mounting operas in unusual locations, perhaps outdid itself this time, presenting the work in a terminal building on the water in San Pedro, not far from the USS Iowa. A large and curious audience showed up for the occasion.

The work at hand was Ernest Bloch’s “Macbeth,” completed in 1909 when the Swiss-American composer was still in his 20s. It was given its premiere in 1910 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, for some reason failing, and this current production is billed as its first professional production in the U.S. Bloch’s relatives were on hand to witness it, and just before the performance, a grandson bestowed Long Beach’s artistic director, Andreas Mitisek, with a piece of agate, polished by the composer himself, in appreciation.

Concert Info:
Bloch’s ‘Macbeth’
Who: Long Beach Opera
Where: World Cruise Center, San Pedro
When: June 16
Next: 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
How much: $29-$160 (limited availability)

Without further delay let us say that Bloch’s “Macbeth” seems like quite a find. It is a full-scale opera in three acts and treats Shakespeare’s tragedy faithfully and potently. The musical idiom is Impressionism and thoroughly French, but the young composer had mastered the style to the extent that he could do with it what he liked. “Macbeth” features some nice touches of Scottish regal atmosphere and gloomy suggestions of nighttime and doom, much of it dispatched with a chamber music intimacy.

Two of its most effective scenes, the murder of Duncan and Lady Macbeth’s mad scene, are quiet and intense. The two lead roles should prove satisfactory to many star performers; there’s a lot to chew on, both musically and dramatically. The trio of witches has a good time of it as well. Originally in French, “Macbeth” was here given in the English-language version prepared by the composer in 1950, which uses some of Shakespeare’s original dialogue. We heard a slightly trimmed version of the score on Saturday (at least some of the cuts were sanctioned by the composer), lasting 110 minutes without an intermission. It held the stage the entire way, with few if any dead spots.

The venue, an interesting idea, wasn’t entirely successful. The opera was given in a curtained-off area of the terminal. Plastic chairs arranged on risers on two sides of the “stage,” merely a narrow central aisle with a long wooden table and chairs, served as seating for the audience. (I’d like to see Mitisek sit in those chairs for 110 minutes.) The room had indifferent acoustics; the orchestra sat in an adjoining area, its sound rendered somewhat distant. The singers were right upon us.

Mitisek is credited with the staging, blunt and immediate. The witches look like zombies, but never mind; they slither and hiss a little too insistently. There are lots of blood-stained shirts and ghoulish faces. Most of the action takes place around the table, and upon it, including the now expected simulated sex act, this one violent (the Blochs were amused), which has become a director’s tic with Mitisek. But overall, the staging was effective enough.

Baritone Nmon Ford made a compelling Macbeth, weak and nervous, delusional in his courageousness. His voice was crisp and burnished. Soprano Suzan Hanson, a stalwart with the company, introduced an aptly creepy Lady Macbeth, severe and manipulative, and fretfully unhinged in her mad scene. Tenor Doug Jones provided an eloquently pointed Banquo (doubling as Duncan, a servant, Malcolm and a murderer) and baritone Robin Buck a fluently vindictive Macduff (and murderer). Ariel Pisturino, Danielle Marcelle Bond and Nandani Sinha teamed effectively as the witches and sold the corny moves.

Benjamin Makino conducted the 33-piece orchestra efficiently, maintaining balances within the orchestra as well as cohesion with the singers. If at times he couldn’t quite muster the requisite explosiveness, well, he was in the other room. The Camerata Singers of Long Beach supplied the chorus and sang neatly.

Not incidentally, the performance was sold out. There’s a waiting list for the two performances next weekend. Performing groups that claim they don’t dare present such fare, take note. There’s a thirst for the unhackneyed.