Giuseppe Verdi, though he knew hardly a word of English, was smitten with Shakespeare. Two great Shakespearean operas, loved by almost everyone who cares about the medium, crowned his long career. But before “Otello” and “Falstaff” there was “Macbeth,” loosely based on a play the composer called “one of the greatest creations of man.” And if, in the end, this early “Scottish opera” isn’t quite the equal of its late siblings, with their hard-won freedom of construction, it has its own kind of sublimity — a quality much on display in Minnesota Opera’s corpse-littered new production, which opened Saturday at the Ordway in St. Paul.
“Macbeth” isn’t easily pegged. Premiered in Florence in 1847, the opera has the volcanic energy and melodramatic verve of the young Verdi. But the score was selectively revised for Parisian performances in 1865, by which time Verdi had become a rather different composer. It’s this later version that’s heard in the current production, stylistic inconsistencies notwithstanding.
Two superb American singers make for a gripping evening. In the title role, Greer Grimsley is a force of nature; his bass-baritone, dark and sinewy, is tactile. The man may earn his keep singing Wagner, but he knows how to squeeze import from an Italian vowel. He tempers the natural authority of his instrument to enact his character’s vulnerability. And he hints, poignantly, at an uncorrupted Macbeth that might have been.
Brenda Harris is Grimsley’s charismatic equal. Her monomaniacal Lady Macbeth, steely and calculating, dominates the stage — at least until the terrific sleepwalking scene, where the reign of terror she’s unleashed claims her as its latest victim. Combining a sturdy low register with a brilliant top, she’s unafraid of the composer’s injunction that her character make unbeautiful sounds.
Alfred Walker’s Banquo has depth and gravitas. Harold Meers, a tenor in a tenor-starved opera, sings movingly as Macduff.
Verdi wrote that the witches — here not Shakespeare’s threesome but rather an entire coven — are a full-fledged character in “Macbeth,” and the company’s female choristers, prepared by Rob Ainsley, have taken him at his word. Indeed, choral singing is a core strength of this production: The fervent chorus of Scottish refugees in Act 4 is among the evening’s highlights.
Stage director Joel Ivany and scenic associate/costume designer Camellia Koo have conjured a drab but serviceable set from pre-existing materials, leaving it to Sean Nieuwenhuis’ artful projections to provide much of the needed visual spice. Conductor Michael Christie melds fire and ice; he has a keen ear for Verdi’s inventive sonorities. Lapses of ensemble on opening night were neither numerous nor fatal.
Larry Fuchsberg writes about music.