By John Farrell, Curtain Call Writer
Perhaps the actors are right.
Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, has long been cursed, according to the traditions of the theatrical profession. It is called The Scotch Play onstage, because any actor mentioning the play’s real name will meet with disaster. The play is not mentioned by its character. Lines from it are not quoted (except in rehearsal) and there are elaborate rituals to purify anyone who offends those sort-of-sacred rules.
Maybe that explains the fate of Macbeth, Swiss-American composer Ernest Bloch’s only opera, premiered in 1910 and hardly heard since. It has never been performed in its entirety in the United States. It recently had its American when Long Beach Opera is presented the opera at the World Cruise Terminal underneath the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro.
The opera was premiered at the Opera Comique in Paris in 1910. It was hailed as a masterpiece by many, but the production was reportedly scarred by dissensions in the cast. When it was offered again in Rome in 1938 it was banned by the fascist government of Mussolini, and has had only a few productions since. This production will be sung in English. The libretto is by Ernest Fleg.
The World Cruise Terminal, the biggest ocean-going passenger terminal on the west coast, hosted an opera audience instead of passengers worried about luggage and shipboard tickets. But there is a similarity. Because of security concerns, every person attending one of the three performances of Macbeth will have to have a ticket and picture identification in their hand to gain admission. That, though, is just the cost of attending an original and innovative work. Long Beach Opera doesn’t have a permanent home, and performances have taken place, in the past few years, in a swimming pool and a parking garage.
This year their first production was in January at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro with Phillip Glass’ opera, The Fall of the House of Usher. They also performed Camelia la Tejana: Only the Truth at the Terrace Theatre of the Long Beach Performing Arts Center and two works, Van Gogh and The Telltale Heart, at the Expo Center also in Long Beach.
Macbeth features a dazzling cast. Panamanian-American bass-baritone Nmon Ford, whose physique and impressive voice make him born to play Macbeth, the Scottish lord whose lust for power finally destroys him. Suzan Hanson, who has long been a star in the Long Beach Opera Co., sings Lady Macbeth. Long Beach Opera’s Artistic and General Director Andreas Mitisek designed and directs this innovative and intriguing production. Mitisek will also conduct.
Ernest Bloch was a young, Swiss-born composer who had been born in 1880 and wrote Macbeth when he was just 24. He was deeply influenced by the operas of Wagner and Debussy, and Macbeth is often noted for being a little like Mussorgsky as well. It was debuted to great fanfare in 1910 Paris, when Shakespeare was still not well known in Paris and when Verdi’s Macbeth had not been heard in many years. That meant it was an exciting and even innovative work, sung in a French that had much of Shakespeare’s language translated into French.
“The young Bloch, inspired by the likes of Wagner, Mussorgsky and Debussy, created a fiery score that heightens the bloody story and provides spectacular insight into the dark soul of Macbeth,” Mitisek said.
Romain Roland studied Bloch’s score at the time and was deeply admiring of the work. But Macbeth was ill fated. Composer Bloch was one of the great composers of the first half of the 20th century, (he was often called the “fourth ‘B’,” after Bach, Beethoven and Brahms) but his opera has languished despite that fame.
Shakespeare wrote Macbeth early in the 17th century, and it was perhaps a disappointment to him. He apparently wrote it for James I, king of both England and Scotland but apparently the king didn’t appreciate it. Still, it is perhaps the perfect opera-friendly work.
It tells the story of Macbeth’s blinding ambition. He wants to become king and is willing to do anything, including bloody murder, to gain his end. His wife is equally determined, and she makes sure he is willing to king the king, his guest, to gain his end. Macbeth has consulted three witches to get assurances that he will be successful, and he is indeed reassured, told that no harm will come to him unless Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane, a physical impossibility that still comes true when the army that opposes him cuts tree branches for disguise. Lady Macbeth commits suicide and Macbeth is killed as the tragedy takes its fatal course.
Tickets are $39 to $160. Performances are at 8 p.m. June 22 and 23.