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Category: theater

SF Opera’s Macbeth: Full of sound and fury, passion

Verdi’s Macbeth SF Opera

Attended the first performance of San Francisco Opera’s Macbeth last night. This isn’t Shakespeare’s Macbeth, it’s Verdi’s. On opening night some of the staging was a little ragged, but the orchestra and the singing was exceptional. Thomas Hampson and Georgina Lukács were very impressive. Within an unconventional directorial approach they were committed actors and showed raw passion.

The production was raw, risky, big, wild and hypnotic. It had the audience buzzing at the intermission. I saw Donald Runnicles in deep, excited conversation with Alan Jones. This would be a challenging opera for newbies, but the strong visual design and passionate acting make it an exciting opportunity to get started with opera. Buy some tickets, they’re cheaper than you think.

In the theater, it’s called “The Scottish Play.” And unlike the opera, it’s often performed because it has one of the smallest cast requirements of any of Shakespeare’s plays. But the version of the story that made the biggest impression on me was Akira Kurosawa’s film, Throne of Blood. If you can’t catch the opera, put Throne of Blood on your Netflix list.

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What we mean when we dream about Hamlet

Wooster Group’s Hamlet

Kills me I’m going to miss this. From what I hear, it’s sold out even though the run was extended two weeks. It’s the Wooster Group’s Hamlet at the Public Theater in New York. The piece was performed last year in Barcelona. Elizabeth LaCompte calls it an archeological excursion into the film version of Hamlet starring Richard Burton.

The Wooster Group’s Hamlet continues their experiment with what counts as a source text in the theater. They may have done this with other pieces, but the last performance I saw was “Poor Theater,” based on the work of Jerzy Grotowski. Generally plays are created based on scripts, the work of playwrights. The Wooster Group has created performance pieces based on movies, documentary film, a series of still photos or stories they’ve heard. This Hamlet is based on the film, not the playscript. To some extent performances are always based on previous performances, in addition to the script.

Hamlet holds a unique place in English language theater, it’s a difficult role, usually tackled by our finest actors. A constellation of images, sounds, faces, voices and souls orbit around the playscript. There’s no finer experience in the theater than watching the Wooster Group perform Hamlet, and showing us what we mean when we dream about Hamlet.

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In Purgatory, heads protruding from urns telling the stories of their tangled lives

Play” by Samuel Beckett. I directed this play in college and must have read it a thousand times. This version is directed by Anthony Minghella, and is performed by Juliet Stevenson, Kristen Scott-Thomas and Alan Rickman.

It begins the trend toward minimal or no movement in Beckett’s plays. He imagined his performance pieces as living paintings. When he had a hand in them, they were specified very exactly. He didn’t view them as open to interpretation.

It’s a “love” triangle that plays out into eternity. Three souls tied together in pain and obsession. It’s the internal dialogue that stops time and space and supercedes the physical world. Some take the visuals to be literal, and therefore “absurd.” I view them as literal, or rather very exact, in their depiction of an emotional landscape.

Part 2

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Appomatox, An Opera by Philip Glass

Philip Glass

One of the great things about going to a premiere of a new opera by a living composer is that you have a direct connection to the life and times of the work. Walking into theater last night, I noticed that the guy in front of me was Philip Glass. He looked a little nervous. Frankly I don’t know how he could sit in the audience and just watch.

While I wouldn’t call “Appomatox” a masterpiece, I would say it’s a “must see.” It’s a very good and thought provoking piece. Robert Woodruff makes his opera directing debut and really delivers. And the set design has tremendous scale with visual and emotional impact.

Glass, Christopher Hampton and David Gockley are to be congratulated for their fearlessness in selecting a theme as big as the Civil War. It’s only through big risk that there is the potential for big rewards. It’s a big story that delivers on many levels. This county’s civil war left 600,000 dead, and that burden weighed down the souls of Lincoln, Grant and Lee. In a war where so many men die, it’s left to the women to tell the story and express the emotions of the nation.

Grant and Lee negotiated the surrender of the southern army and the basis for reconciliation. The opera goes on to tell the ways in which reconcilation failed. The negotiation was civilized and concluded in great hope. But we are only a nation of people—flawed, brilliant and inconsistent.

The orchestra was conducted by Dennis Russell Davies in his first engagement with SF Opera. A long time ago, Davies was the music director of the Cabrillo Music Festival in Santa Cruz. He’s conducted many premieres by Glass, and showed a real command of the music. If you’ve listened to a lot of Glass, you’ll hear many familiar themes. If you like Glass, you’ll like Appomatax. It probably requires several hearings for its full depth to come through.

All opera company directors are looking to broaden their audiences. They need to bring younger people in and win new converts. The house was packed and diverse. At the intermission, there was a real buzz. The opera provoked conversation and dialogue. I like seeing new work about american themes and history. There’s a lot of richness here that’s untapped.

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