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Creating a New Macbeth for May

By Speight Jenkins

Ms. Gruber has the wide range for the role, the capacity to create the powerful personality, and an affinity not only for Verdi but for early Verdi as witnessed by her triumphs in an even harder role, Abigaille in Nabucco. Lady Macbeth is an odd part, one that mezzos sometimes sing because so much of it is low. But it has been dramatic sopranos with potent low registers and enormous theatricality who have had the greatest triumphs in the part, and this defines Ms. Gruber.

For Macbeth, I turned immediately to Gordon Hawkins, whose Verdi gallery for Seattle Opera, beginning in 1992 with Amonasro in Aida, has included many of the composer’s major roles. At this point, in his vocal prime, Hawkins should be ideal for the Scottish tyrant.

For Lady Macbeth in the second cast, my choice went to a Russian soprano, Elena Zelenskaya, whose audition was thrilling. Her success in the role, beginning in Russia and extending to many European engagements, gave me great confidence in her.

In 2001, I went to Minneapolis to hear Dean Williamson conduct Lucia di Lammermoor. The Edgardo, Joseph Calleja, sang a brilliant performance, showing off a voice that had the sound that to me suggests spring sunshine, a characteristic of the Italian tenor. The program said he was from Malta. Afterwards I went to his dressing room and asked him if he were Italian. He said that he was and that Italian was his first language. It had to be. Every tenor I have ever heard with this particular sound has always spoken Italian first. I was delighted he was interested in singing Macduff, the first of several roles with us. I heard Barak Bilgili in audition in New York. The Turkish bass had the right sound and vocal color for Banquo.

In casting about for a conductor who would combine the power, excitement, and lyricism necessary for Macbeth, I kept hearing about an Italian maestro who had become red hot in Europe, Nicola Luisotti. Andrea Gruber’s manager told me about him and how much Andrea had enjoyed working with him. I heard nothing but raves about him from many of my colleagues, and really excited reports of his brilliance with singers and orchestral musicians. I am happy to have him conduct Macbeth and give the opportunity for the whole American opera community, assembled in Seattle for the annual OPERA America conference during our Macbeth, to hear his work as well.

Partly because of the OPERA America conference and because there were no productions of Macbeth available that fulfilled what I wanted, I asked Robert Israel if he would be willing to design the opera. In 1983, when we first started talking about the Ring, I had seen photos of a marvelous Macbeth that he had designed for Minnesota Opera. I knew that he could turn out the kind of spooky, evocative Macbeth called for by the story and Verdi’s score. Israel and director Bernard Uzan had not worked together before; Uzan has given us many different great productions, beginning with an Andrea Chenier in 1996. I thought the combination would set off some creative fireworks and turn out an exciting product.

All is ready now to create one of Verdi’s early masterpieces, conceivably his first masterpiece, one with great parts for all four major singers, thrilling choruses, and an expressive orchestra. Birnam Wood is about to come to Dunsinane!