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BWW Reviews: dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's MACBETH is Atmospheric and Intimate

Jason Plourde as Macbeth & MaryAnn Stewart as
Lady Macbeth. Photo by Brian E. Long.

As an art form, it seems that opera is having a hard time finding its footing with the current generation of young professionals. Increasingly, opera companies are scaling back as their current subscribers have no one to pass their torches on to. Despite this, dell'Arte Opera Ensemble is continuing their ambitious and altogether intimate 2014 summer season with a beautifully performed production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH.

First performed in 1847, MACBETH is Guiseppe Verdi's tenth opera. It was received well and presented widely. In 1865, he revised MACBETH for its French premiere. This time the opera was poorly received and slowly faded away until it had some successful mid-20th century revivals. With the ebb and flow of popularity, one thing I find extremely puzzling about MACBETH as an opera is its half-hearted adaptation. The score Guiseppe Verdi composed is nicely atmospheric, and is reminiscent of RIGOLETTO (which he was commissioned to compose in 1850); yet, the libretto by Francesco Mario Piave with additional material by Andrea Maffei takes extreme liberties with the source material.

Lady Macbeth is stripped of her best monologues, coming across more as doting wife in the opening act than ambitious social climber bent on elevating the status of her husband for both of their benefits. Furthermore, moments that do remain intact seem present only to appease those of us with more than a passing familiarity with the plot and its key moments. The opera MACBETH generally tells the same story as William Shakespeare's play, but the changes made are disappointing. dell'Arte Opera Ensmeble's production was my first time to experience this piece, and I felt utterly betrayed by the work that was done 149 to 167 years ago. In essence, Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH is to William Shakespeare's MACBETH as the 2004 film Troy is to Homer's The Iliad.

Despite the problems with the adaption, Conductor and Music Director Christopher Fecteau does expert work bringing Giuseppe Verdi's score to life. From the opening of the overture until the final bow, the music played by the small but quite effective orchestra is alluring and mesmerizing. Likewise, each of the vocalists performs with tangible fervor, keeping the audience engaged in the production. It must be noted that there are moments in the first and fourth acts that drag on and test the patience and attention of the audience, but this is of no fault to the skillful performances delivered under Christopher Fecteau's baton.

Myra Cordell's stage direction brings out the mood and tone of the show, allowing those of us familiar enough with the source material the opportunity to get lost in the arias and not give full attention to the supertitles projected on the upstage screen. She and Lighting Designer Scott Schneider also cleverly use a low-tech lighting cue for the witches' cauldron in Act III that allows for it to disappear before our eyes, just as the libretto describes.

Hans Tashjian as Banco (Banquo).
Photo by Brian E. Long.

With an opulent baritone instrument, Jason Plourde sings the role of Macbeth with clarity. As an audience we feel his emotional turmoil and see how ambition becomes his downfall. Mary Ann Stewart's soprano instrument is gorgeous, lending much power and authority to her Lady Macbeth. If only Giuseppe Verdi and his librettists would have left well enough alone so she could impress us with a striking character and not just her lovely voice. With a shimmering quality, Caleb Stokes vibrant tenor instrument makes his Macduff memorable. Almost stealing the show, Hans Tashjian's rumbling and sumptuously lush bass vocals make his Banco (Banquo) the most memorable and fascinating performance of the evening. His rendition of "Come dal ciel precipita" is strikingly haunting. As the three witches, Monica Niemi, Elizabeth Bouk, and Jackie Hayes harmonize well. They perform and sing with more cheer and joy than I would expect from the characters, making the weird sisters more comical than enigmatic. As Malcom, Marques Hollie's triumphant tenor owns the final moments of the production.

MACBETH for Giuseppe Verdi was a stepping stone on his way to dominating the opera world. As an opera, it offers some wondrous music and moments that enchant operagoers and performers alike. The adaptation is disappointing, and the pacing is uneven in the first and fourth acts. In spite of these weaknesses, New York City's dell'Arte Opera Ensemble has put together a production that makes audiences glad they experienced it. Even though it is not the best opera I, or you, have seen, there is truly something amazing about seeing opera produced in an intimate venue and knowing that the performers can actually see your reactions, and that makes a company like dell'Arte Opera Ensemble such a joy to visit time and again.

The remaining performances of MACBETH are August 22 at 8:00 p.m. and August 24 at 2:00 p.m. All performances are held in the East 13th Street Theatre at 136 East 13th Street, between 3rd and 4th Avenues. The entrance to the theater is through the Everyman Café. For tickets and more information, please visit

All photos by Brian E. Long. Courtesy of dell'Arte Opera Ensemble.

Jackie Hayes as Witch 3, Elizabeth Bouk as Witch 2, and Monica Niemi as Witch 1. Photo by Brian E. Long.

Hans Tashjian as Banco (Banquo). Photo by Brian E. Long.

MaryAnn Stewart as Lady Macbeth. Photo by Brian E. Long.

Jason Plourde as Macbeth. Photo by Brian E. Long.

Jason Plourde as Macbeth & MaryAnn Stewart as Lady Macbeth. Photo by Brian E. Long.

Caleb Stokes as Macduff. Photo by Brian E. Long.

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