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West Bay Opera


October 13, 2006

Jason Detwiler

Helena Janzén
(Lady Macbeth)
Photos by
Lucinda Surber

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Donizettian Macbeth, Wagnerian Gruach

By Janos Gereben

The opera Macbeth, generally attributed to Verdi, is Donizetti exemplified: bel canto melodies; sweeping, obsessive rhythms — Donizetti all the way. (One exception: those undeniably Verdian marches that sound like both the Italian and the Brazilian national anthems — as if you could tell them apart.)

The "Donizetti sound" is one of the glories of West Bay Opera's new production, conducted by Sara Jobin. She marshaled meager resources to produce excellence money cannot buy. Jobin will likely soon become a "house conductor" either at the San Francisco Opera or somewhere else with ingenious management. She brought out the best of a small, fine orchestra and a small, often ragged chorus to present a fluent, cohesive, enjoyable performance that enabled the singers to rule.

Rule they did, in different ways. Jason Detwiler, despite his youth, has been heard in the South Bay in many roles, but nothing prepared me for his Macbeth. He sang simply, quietly, naturally, with a warm, velvety voice. Top and bottom were good, but in the middle voice, Detwiler was extraordinary, bringing up blessed memories of Herman Prey singing "Pierrot's Tanzlied" from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt.

Who killed Gruach Macbeth?

Lady Macbeth came from another neighborhood, the rocks of the Valkyries. Her little-known first name, Gruach (or Gruoch, pronounced Groah — no, it's not "Lady"), befits a Wagnerian soprano. Helena Janzén is a big-voiced Swede who made up for all of Detwiler's subtlety. Stage director Daniel Helfgot made Janzén sing both of Lady Macbeth's two great arias in a prone position, as if she were Tosca singing "Vissi d'arte." Unlike Tosca's already difficult trick of singing from the floor, Janzén was even directed to turn onto her back, singing to the ceiling. (Why don't singers have a union protecting them from "management"?) The second aria ended terminally, as Helfgot directed Macbeth to force some poison down her throat to conclude the sleepwalking scene — specifics not provided by Shakespeare, but what the heck.

On her side, face down, or on her back, Janzén still blew down the house, with a strong, well-projected voice and manic, jerky energy. Except when she tried too hard or when facing the low register (which is not her true home), Janzén gave a truly impressive performance. Adam Flowers' Macduff and Kevin Nakatani's Banquo were both well sung. Italian diction from all principal singers, especially Detwiler, was clean and clear. (In an alternative cast, the leading roles are sung by Teresa Brown and Michael Morris.)

The production is surprisingly good musically, and it is certainly surprising dramatically. Helfgot never met an idea he didn't like. From his fertile mind came scenes such as Lady Macbeth mounting men who stretch out on their backs helplessly. The devilish Gruach empties her glass on the head of Macbeth, the witches wear sunglasses, and most soloists sport a crown, no matter their rank. Confusingly, Macbeth wears one at the beginning, when his actual possession of the crown is several murders away. On the plus side, there was a pithy understatement in placing the action in "a land in political turmoil."

The end is another beginning

A final "kick" is a risky thing in opera, since it can be meaningful, distracting — or both. A perfect example of the latter is Götz Friedrich's otherwise excellent Lohengrin in Bayreuth, with Godfrey returning as a kind of R2-D2 robot at the end of the opera. Edo de Waart, in his Bayreuth conducting debut, was as amazed and shocked as the audience. In the ensuing hubbub, the music turned into mush, just as the final curtain fell.

Helfgot's Macbeth finale is more subtle and certainly thought-provoking: Malcolm's coronation ends with a visual déjà vu. Just as Lady Macbeth thrust a knife into Macbeth's hand at the beginning, a woman in red (Lady Macbeth's uniform throughout the program) hands a knife to Malcolm as the curtain falls. It could be Gruach's ghost, or a symbolic character representing the idea of the killer-wife.

Jean-François Revon's sets on the postage-stamp-sized stage are enshrouded by Chad Bonaker's busy lighting and the chorus — who wear Richard W. Battle's slick fake-leather (or opulent vinyl) outfits that serve witches, courtiers, and revolting peasants alike. It's a useful device, as the same handful of chorus members do all the work. No need to change costumes — just accessorize them appropriately. As for the shiny plastic straps on the singers' heads, this reporter is helpless in trying to decode the meaning or the message.

The area has done well with Macbeth — since the S.F. Opera's grand Howland-Pizzi production in 1994, Berkeley Opera (featuring Ricardo Herrera) and Pocket Opera (Marcelle Dronkers) have presented small-scale, memorable performances of it.

Historical-factual footnote

Here's the real story of Macbeth, something you won't find in Shakespeare or Verdi: Duncan was killed in 1040 while attempting to bring the rebellious Macbeth to heel. Macbeth then became king. The real Lady Macbeth had plenty of royal connections, being the granddaughter of either Kenneth II or III and the daughter of Boete (from the family of another king, Malcolm II).

Macbeth remained king for 17 often-turbulent years, and he made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050. (Opera Quiz: What's a common element in Macbeth and Tannhäuser?) Malcolm III, the son of Duncan, who represented one of the three rival royal lines, finally defeated and killed Macbeth at Lumphanan in 1057. A contemporary Parliamentary move "to clear Macbeth's name" is still up in the air.

(Janos Gereben is a regular contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice. His e-mail address is [email protected])

©2006 Janos Gereben, all rights reserved