MOT debuts solid ‘Lady Macbeth’

George Bulanda
Special to The Detroit News

Detroit — In many productions of Verdi’s Macbeth, the character of Lady Macbeth is dominant, steamrolling over her weak-willed husband.

But in Michigan Opera Theatre’s (MOT) mounting of the work — its first production of the work in its 45-year history — the wicked couple are portrayed as equal co-conspirators in their murderous schemes. He’s just as ambitious as she is; she just has more resolve.

Although Lady Macbeth is certainly the one who sets the bloody gears in motion in this musical rendition of Shakespeare’s play, her husband is presented here not simply as a milquetoast spouse who does his wife’s bidding. He wants the crown as much as his wife does, though his conscience is stronger than hers. When she calls her husband a coward, he doesn’t hesitate to pick up the dagger for another murder or two.

This is a difficult opera to pull off on many levels, but the stars were aligned for the most part in the opening night presentation Saturday at the Detroit Opera House. In no small measure the success was due to Italian soprano Susanna Branchini, who made her MOT debut as Lady Macbeth. Her name is not familiar on these shores because her career has been forged primarily in Europe. But once the word spreads about her ability, her calendar for operatic gigs should be filling up nicely. Her voice is large but supple and opens up like a trumpet in the highest register. Branchini also knows how to act with her voice, shading the words with expressive weight.

Verdi didn’t want his Lady Macbeth to have a traditionally beautiful voice. He wrote that he desired her instrument to be “rough, hollow, with something diabolical in it.” Branchini delivered the goods splendidly. Her only rough patch was in the treacherously difficult Sleepwalking Scene in the last act, when she cracked on the climactic high D-flat. One could argue that this vocal blemish simply amplified her madness, as her guilt has a finally caught up with her. But part of the problem was conductor Stephen Lord’s rushed tempo during the scene. The music has to mirror her precarious mental state, and a loose, relaxed tempo is in order. Otherwise, Lord acquitted himself well on the podium, with his taut, cohesive conducting of the MOT orchestra.

Baritone Stephen Powell shone brightly as Macbeth. His burnished, bronzed voice has great beauty and range, but Powell knows how to use it to underscore his character’s guilt and fear.

When the opera starts, Lady Macbeth is stronger than her husband, but as the drama unfolds his resolve grows as his wife’s grip on reality falters. Lady Macbeth is haunted by her bloody actions when she famously says. “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” Eventually, she takes the cravenly way out and commits suicide. But Macbeth faces his fate bravely as he meets Macduff on the battlefield. Macduff kills him, but Macbeth has grown as a character.

The young Italian-American tenor Leonardo Capalbo made an impressive MOT debut as Macduff. He didn’t use his good looks and golden voice as mere window dressing. He invested his voice with rage and determination. He’s out to avenge the murder of his family, and he does so convincingly.

A familiar presence on the MOT stage, Turkish bass Burak Bilgili turned in a solid performance as Banquo. His warm voice is as deep as the ocean, and he used it to create a compelling portrayal.

Chorus Master Suzanne Mallare Acton deft touch was evident in her fine work with the Witches’ Chorus.

So many productions of Macbeth go overboard with Halloween-like effects of haunting apparitions, shadows, and of course, blood, but director Bernard Uzan employs admirable restraint. He prefers to project the characters’ psychological states rather than going for the physically obvious.

Instead of ghosts and screams, there are swirling, abstract video projections, suggesting the unrest and turmoil of the drama. Uzan’s minimalist approach works well because it forces us instead to focus on the characters.

All told, this is an impressive, solid production, as moving as it is memorable.

MOT’s ‘Macbeth’

■Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, downtown Detroit.

■Repeats April 20, 23 and 24.

■Jill Gardner alternates as Lady Macbeth and Michael Chioldi sings Macbeth April 24.

■Tickets: $29-$149

■Information: (313) 237-7464 or