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African “Macbetto,” Czech Berlioz

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Owen Metsileng as Macbeth Fabrizio Cassol’s adaptation of the Verdi opera performed by Third World Bunfight. | DOMINIC M. MERCIER
Owen Metsileng as Macbeth in Fabrizio Cassol’s adaptation of the Verdi opera performed by Third World Bunfight. | DOMINIC M. MERCIER

September 24 in Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theater, a capacity audience heard Third World Bunfight’s adaptation (by Fabrizio Cassol) of Verdi’s “Macbeth.” Presenting this South African troupe continued Opera Philadelphia’s collaboration with the city’s extensive Fringe Festival.

The brainchild of director Brett Bailey, this clever, moving, and sometimes quite profound reworking sets the opera’s essential scenes in contemporary Congo-Kinshasa. The searing chorus “Patria oppressa” starts and ends the piece, reappearing several times — an apt threnody for the tens of thousands displaced, killed, or reduced to penury or servitude by civil wars and corruption, both internal and multinational. A chorus in street clothes sits at stage left, a chamber orchestra (a dozen OP players, rhythmically dominated by percussion) at right.

The conceptual gambit is that refugees have come upon the score and properties from a colonial 1930s touring “Macbetto” — highly improbable, the work was scarcely in the repertory, but what matter? They perform it to tell their own reality. Throughout, we see evidence (enacted and via images) of rape, coercion, child soldiery, and other violence. The witches — well vocalized by choristers doubling as the Apparitions — are forced to sing while three Western-suited, masked figures associated with an exploitative mining conglomerate tell the futures of their Congolese “clients,” Macbeth and Banquo. Surtitles are hilariously scatological, alternating Brechtian effects with plainspoken power realities.

Third World Bunfight adapts Verdi in Philly; Magdalena Kožená in two turns

Bailey and Cassol cut and pasted lavishly; some numbers (like Act Two’s finale) are gone, others simplified and/ or truncated. The first finale after a while gets replaced by a distorted Old Met broadcast unmistakably featuring Leonie Rysanek. A few numbers are guyed as embedded performances (“La luce langue” witnesses a disco ball, Banquo’s aria a mic and back-up singers who eventually murder him) — seemingly to guarantee entertainment value for non-traditional operatic audiences.

Yet this “Macbeth” was among the politically smartest adaptations of operatic form I’ve witnessed — it reinterprets Shakespeare and Verdi’s works in resonant, meaningful ways, bearing testimony to the ongoing suffering and economic injustice colonial domination wrought and wreaks on numberless Africans.

The musical performance under conductor Premil Petrovic also movingly honored Verdi’s visionary music — his earliest attempt at integrated music drama, in which even the monstrous central couple are shown alone and afraid as fellow suffering humans. This adaptation frequently alters rhythms and (often brilliantly) instrumentation, sometimes keys.

The three main singers — powerful, uninhibited presences — all showed serious schooling and considerable vocal resources. Owen Metsileng’s boyish-faced, rueful Macbeth showed ample legato and control, outshining recent Met exponents — except perhaps Carlos Álvarez. Nobulumko Mngxekeza’s Lady Macbeth was a handful: a ruthless operator like the Ivory Coast’s Simone Gbagbo and a shoe maven like Imelda Marcos. Her mezzo-with-extension emerged sometimes blunt yet expressive and capable of a surprising degree of finesse. Otto Maidi’s Banquo started rather choked but soon came into his own. This unforgettable touring production next regroups in Vancouver in January.

The Met revived Michael Grandage’s static, set-muffled, goofy dance-hobbled “Don Giovanni” on September 27: truly a compendium of the way shows designed for HD viewing can bomb seen live. Revival director Louisa Muller couldn’t do much with the disastrously cramped playing space and apparently doesn’t have the clout to lose the anachronistic, unmusical sub-“Glee” table choreography. Fabio Luisi generated some well coordinated, smooth playing, but tempos sometimes droned, sometimes drove.

No one was terrible — though the often beauteous-toned Hibla Gerzmava hasn’t the technique, textual command or passion to play Anna, and I found Adam Plachetka’s stylistically decent Leporello vocally and dramatically monotonous. The rest had distinct virtues, most of all Simon Keenlyside’s title libertine and Malin Byström’s Elvira. Returning to major stage singing after multiple surgeries, Keenlyside looked and sounded fully at home, living the complex role with insight, flair, and fine-honed tone. His serenade was particularly beautiful. Byström, improving as she went along, offered a total performance, her soprano light and fluid, if needing the occasional extra breath to negotiate the hardest runs. Rolando Villazón’s utterly predictable cancellation gave this first run to Paul Appleby, whose alert, smoothly vocalized Ottavio fared much better than his April Belmonte; both arias won applause. Though not ideally clear of utterance, mezzo Serena Malfi (Zerlina) produced an unarguably Italianate sound — which can’t be said of that fine artist Matthew Rose, playing her fiancé. Quality bass Kwangchul Youn — probably covering King Marke in “Tristan” — offered considerable vocal art as the Commendattore.

The next night Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic provided beautiful accompaniment to the Berlioz masterpiece “Nuits d’été”, a six-piece song cycle to poems by Théophile Gautier. Gilbert conjured the melancholy sustained atmosphere of the slower songs with a sensitivity that sometimes has been rare in his treatment of 19th century Romanticism. The soloist, star Czech mezzo Magdalena Kožená, looked and sounded lovely (as usual) but made less than memorable contact with the rich texts. She always knew what she was singing, but tended to skim over specific details and contrasts, overcompensating with near-constant hand gestures. Kožená had a music stand; though she wasn’t greatly dependent on it, its presence underscored the not yet fully formed interpretation of this great work.

Kožená fared much better at a recital for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society in the intimate acoustics and sightlines of the Perelman Theater. Her voice throughout sounded warm and pure, though some pressure intruded on some top notes. She was at her very best singing Dvorák in her native language. A Gabriel Fauré group also impressed as to expression and sensitivity; the lyrics felt lived in. This was not the case with her German songs, be they by Wolf, Strauss, or Schoenberg (his prolix “Cabaret Lieder,” which most classical singers should leave alone).

Malcolm Martineau, however, brought deft and stylish pianism to all the works undertaken. Overall, a pleasant occasion; PCMS’s next vocal recitalists include two major figures, Bernarda Fink (November 11) and Sandrine Piau (February 14), plus the very promising Paul Appleby (March 3).

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes about opera for many venues.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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