Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its 2021-22 comeback season September 17 with Giuseppe Verdi’s 1847 interpretation of William Shakespeare’s 1606 play Macbeth. There have been few works of literature more apt for adaptation to opera: A story of monstrous ambition, atrocious murders, treason and betrayal, descent to madness, and bloody revenge—with its narrative driven by the premonitions of witches—Macbeth is pretty much opera maximus.
It might have been easy even with a lesser production to please the nearly full house; attendees were almost giddy with the Lyric’s return to live performance after an 18-month pandemic hiatus, and with the debut of Enrique Mazzola as music director. (This year Sir Andrew Davis retired as music director after a 20-year tenure.) The performance was a success beyond these historic trappings, though, thanks largely to powerful performances by lead players.
There are no spoiler alerts on literature written more than four centuries ago, and Verdi followed Shakespeare’s story line closely. It opens with Macbeth (Craig Colclough) and Banquo (Christian Van Horn)—fresh from victory as generals in the Scottish army of 11th century King Duncan—happening upon a coven of witches. Their visions that Macbeth will receive a royal commission and ultimately become king, but that Banquo will be the father of kings, precipitate the mayhem that follows.
With the scene set, Sondra Radvanovsky makes her blazing appearance as Lady Macbeth, her soaring soprano capturing the relentless, mad ambition that defines the indelible character she plays. She dominates the stage as she works upon Macbeth’s own lust for power, challenging his courage as they plot first to murder Duncan (enabling the two to usurp the throne), then Banquo (in an effort to preempt the witches’ third prediction of his progeny rising to rule).
Colclough’s bass-baritone doesn’t project the power of Radvanovsky’s vocals, but his fierce performance as an actor conveys Macbeth’s torments as he is beset by guilt—particularly during the famed banquet scene at the end of act two in which he is terrified by the ghost of Banquo that only he can see—yet driven to even more murder to eliminate his enemies.
Literature’s most beastly power couple dominate the action until the beginning of the final act four when Macduff, played by tenor Joshua Guerrero, delivers a show-stopping aria. In the previous act, Macbeth demands more predictions from the witches, who tell him to beware of Macduff; this prompts him to send assassins to kill Macduff, and when they find he has gone into exile in England to escape Macbeth’s tyranny, they murder his wife and children. After singing his remarkable lament and vow of vengeance, Guerrero as Macduff allies with English troops and Duncan’s son Malcolm to plan an attack.
But Radvanovsky gets one more star turn as Lady Macbeth, sleepwalking, sings of how her hands are permanently stained with blood (inspired by Shakespeare’s “out damned spot” soliloquy). Then Macbeth, informed that his wife has died, delivers one of literature’s most famous aphorisms: that life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
In the end, Macbeth is undone when he is misled by the witches’ two other predictions that made him believe he was invulnerable: that he was safe until the Birnam Wood forest advanced against him, and that no man of woman born could harm him. Macduff leads a phalanx of soldiers disguised with branches from Birnam Wood, then reveals he was ripped prematurely from his mother’s womb, just before slaying Macbeth in a sword fight.
Malcolm takes the crown that had been worn by his father, which passes for a happy ending after three hours of endless bloodshed.
The performances are more memorable than the staging in a production directed by Sir David McVicar. Much of the action takes place in an austere church, and there is little sense of place for the Macbeths’ castle. It also took several minutes between acts to execute set changes behind the curtain, which resulted in some chatter among audience members. There also were some cryptic plot wrinkles, revolving around three child-apparitions who appear in key scenes of the opera, that were never clearly explained.
Despite excellent vocals and a solid and unobtrusive performance by the Lyric orchestra under Mazzola’s baton, this is not an opera that you’ll leave humming the tunes. That’s actually a good thing in a way, because virtually all of the arias involve bloody murder or vengeance.
Macbeth returns to the Lyric stage five more times: this Thursday,September 23, at 2pm (tickets $39-$279); Thursday, September 30, at 7pm (tickets $39-$279); Sunday, October 3, at 2pm (tickets $59-$319); Wednesday, October 6, at 2pm (tickets $49-$299); and Saturday, October 9, at 7:30pm (tickets $59-$319). The Lyric also will debut its second program, of a much gentler nature, with Gaetano Donizetti’s comic romp The Elixir of Love, which opens Sunday, September 26, at 2pm (tickets $59-$319).
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