Sometimes, a story is so universal that it can be updated without affecting the integrity of the drama. San Francisco Opera’s deeply problematic production of Verdi’s Macbeth, which debuted last Wednesday, proved to be one of the exceptions. Shakespeare’s tale of greed and ambition leading to ruin can stand up to changes of setting and time, but David Pountney’s staging, directed here by Nicola Raab, left the opening-night audience troubled and confused. The curtain opened on a female chorus, presumably the witches, dressed in red and in every imaginable style, and playing with a strange assortment of props, the likes of which the War Memorial Opera House stage has rarely seen. The women held stereos, played with egg beaters, and remarkably, constantly hula-hooped (yes, while singing). Besides contributing an incredible amount of noise, these objects were a troubling sign of things to come. The set consisted of gray, concretelike walls that swooped down toward stage left, and a gray box that moved and turned to represent various locations. Unfortunately, any action that occurred inside the box was only visible to those seated in the center of the house. The shock of seeing King Duncan’s dead body was therefore only shocking to a small portion of the audience.
Yesterday’s FutureThe stage resembled a set from Star Wars, and my immediate association was strengthened when Macbeth (Thomas Hampson) made his first entrance bearing a striking similarity to that film’s Lando Calrissian. Just when I thought I might be overreacting, Banquo entered with several soldiers whose molded-plastic breastplates and futuristic helmets brought to mind Darth Vader’s storm troopers, though clad in black rather than white. Lady Macbeth’s initial absurdity may be chalked up to workplace safety. It was nonetheless distracting to watch Hungarian soprano Georgina Lukács, standing on the 10-foot-tall box, grapple with the safety line to which she was tethered. At the outset, it seemed that Lukács’ awkwardness was due to the thick black rope tying her to the box. As the first act progressed, however, it became apparent that she lacked any grace of movement. Every step seemed labored, and acting was limited to swaying and holding her head. Indeed, I wondered about her interpretation of the character. Shakespeare and Verdi gave us a woman of incredible strength and ambition, who slides into madness while desperately trying to hold herself together. Lukács, however, seemed unhinged from the outset, eliminating any chance of character progression. Her stage direction was also a hindrance. Lady Macbeth’s fierceness, quite an anomaly for a female character of the time, was cheapened by a series of bizarre pseudosexual reactions to the many murders.
All photos by Terrence McCarthySadly, her singing did not help. While the upper reaches of her voice displayed glimpses of a bright, silvery tone, the other registers were unfocused and her vibrato had a clearly apparent wobble. Lukács’ voice does not seem inclined toward movement, so quicker passages and occasional decorated lines dragged behind the orchestra.