Review of Verdi's Macbeth at LA Opera: Spellbinding!


Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth at the LA Opera starring Placido Domingo has become my favorite dramatic opera of all time.  The production is perfection itself.  Shakespeare, the greatest writer, meets Verdi, the greatest opera master, meets Domingo, the greatest opera star of our time.


The queen (Ekaterina Semenchuk) and Macbeth (Placido Domingo)

Conductor James Conlon not only contributes a flawless performance from the LA Opera Orchestra but also analyzes in depth the style and place in history of this superb piece. He  explains in his program notes that Verdi broke with previous opera styles and traditions.  The bel canto and previous operas highlighted the music and the singing of the best sopranos, tenors and baritones of the day. The storylines were often convoluted, mere window-dressing.


Lady Macbeth and her courtiers

But Verdi, an avid fan and scholar of Shakespeare, was drawn to the intensity of the drama – to the extent that he commanded his performers to fulfill the dramatic tension first and foremost. At times,  this meant even bringing their performances to speech rather than singing.  He insisted if they did not get the drama right, the opera would fail.


Domingo as Macbeth - It doesn't get better than this

LA Opera has brilliantly followed Verdi’s instructions. Every element of the production lends itself to the drama, including the grand set dressing, simple and stark by production designer Sean Nieuwenhuis, and the darkened lighting throughout, masterfully created by lighting designer Matthew Richards. The costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlarb are likewise beautiful and understated.

The huge chorus of witches, goblins, soldiers and peasants under the direction of Chorus master Grant Gershon added enormously to the dramatic moods and thrilling action of the play.


The stage presents not only stately columns but also hand-grips with which goblins climb the walls

Rather than looking for the best soprano of the day, it is said Verdi wanted someone with an “ugly” voice who could portray her sinister qualities. Lady Macbeth’s first sounds are her reading aloud. Already you can pick up the stern, judgmental, and powerful qualities in the voice of Ekaterina Semenchuk.  The first time I heard her sing in the theatre, it felt as though ice-cold water was being poured down my back. And that was perfect for her. As the play unfolded, I appreciated her vocal qualities more and more as a supremely masterful, controlling villain. In her sleepwalking scene at the end, she was able to portray a complete reversal – of someone who is feeling the horrors of what she has created. Hooray for director Darko Tresnjak for helping to achieve this and to him or whoever created this masterful casting.


Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth is haunted by the murders for which she and her husband must pay the price

What can be said about our own dear Placido Domingo?  Every moment he is fully present – from Macbeth’s weaknesses and hesitations at the beginning to his outright acceptance of himself as the power-hungry tyrant he has become.  The reverse character arcs of he and his lady have never been so clear in a Shakespeare play as they are displayed here in Giuseppe Verdi's opera. Though the dramatic stage and opera are different media, Verdi has shown how opera can take the performance of heightened emotions and turmoil to new levels.

And Domingo’s still-strong voice carries the pathos and power to carry this larger-than-life part.  His acting is flawless, and his energy befits that of a much younger man.  There is no one like him. Besides being such a long-lived opera star, he continues to influence the art as both singer and conductor, as well as General Director of the LA Opera and creator of the international vocal competition Operalia.


Roberto Tagliavin as the ill-fated Banquo and his son Malcolm (Josh Wheeker)

Special note must be made of Roberto Tagliavini, whom we enjoyed as Figaro in Marriage of Figaro last year and in this production as the soulful Banquo. Also, Arturo Chacon-Cruz  has charmed La Opera-goers in several parts, most recently in Gianni Schicchi and received big audience applause after his aria as Macduff. (These singers will both be leaving their roles during the October performances for replacements.)


Arturo Chacon-Cruz, familiar to LA Opera-goers, is Macduff

Verdi is quoted as saying, “There are three roles in this opera and three roles only: Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, and the chorus of witches.”  This production takes these words and runs with them, as the witches’ scenes are large and full of many witches and goblin-like creatures, who climb the walls and do tricks onstage.  They are fascinating to watch.  When Macbeth receives the prophecies, large heads of his rivals appear on the stage. This is a bold and slightly comical touch. It seems to underlie a main theme of the story: Don’t go to fortune-tellers!

But I do predict - if you go see LA Opera's Macbeth, you will be happy you did!


Georja Umano is an actress and animal advocate.

Photos courtesy of LA Opera. 





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