How far is it to Dunsinane?

Being a purist at heart, I like my opera and my Shakespeare performed in the grand manner, with all the dramatic flourishes, both tragical and comical. The opening of Seattle Opera's "Macbeth" on May 6 will be a culmination of two grand masters: Shakespeare and Verdi. I should not be disappointed.

Giuseppe Verdi had a great regard for the works of Shakespeare, having studied the Bard from an early age. Being a man of the theater, with a strong sense of drama, Verdi wrote wonderful music for the opera "Macbeth," his first Shakespeare adaptation, which opened in Florence on March 14, 1847, to great success. A revised version opened in Paris in 1865, adding dancers, a new aria and a duet. This version will be the one performed by the Seattle Opera.

Verdi had further success with another Shakespeare tragedy, "Othello," in 1887. He had planned throughout his career to do an adaptation of "King Lear," the ultimate Shakespeare tragedy, and tried at least nine times, but the work was never completed.

When Arrigo Boito, who had so successfully collaborated with Verdi in writing "Othello," approached the aging composer with a comic libretto based on the two Shakespeare plays that involve the corpulent knight, Sir John Falstaff ("The Merry Wives of Windsor" and "Henry IV, Part 1"), Verdi had not written a comedy in more than half a century. His one and only attempt in the comic genre was "Un Giorno di Regno," first produced in 1840, and a resounding failure. But Boito's new libretto, and perhaps the recent memory of the success of "Othello," inspired Verdi to try his hand at the composition of what would be his last opera, and certainly one of his greatest. "Falstaff" was no less successful than its predecessor and sister work, "Othello."

As for Shake-speare's "Macbeth," the play is visually dark, taking place in the shadows, in rain, in storms, at twilight or in the middle of the night. Because it is so short, it's dense with the intensity of a fever dream, filled with prophecies, ghosts, daggers hovering in midair, shrieks in the night pitched ever more shrill by a deepening paranoia and dread. Although the story is as exciting as a murder mystery, it's the atmosphere, not the plot, that's the thing. For gloomy intensity, there's nothing like it in all of Shakespeare.

The play opens on a "blasted heath," with swirling mists and fog, in which we can barely see. Visual obscurity here suggests moral ambiguity, the boundaries between good and evil incomprehensibly blurred. "Macbeth" depicts a disorienting world where "Fair is foul, and foul is fair." Macbeth is still a hero, fresh from the battlefield where his valor led to victory. As he passes, the Witches greet him with a repetition of three pronouncements (three being a magical number).

The first Witch presents him with a known truth:

All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!

The next, with a possibility that will become true:

All hail, Macbeth! Hail to the Thane of Cawdor!

And the last, with a statement that's seemingly beyond his grasp:

All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!

Thus, by degrees, they lead him from the actual to the probable and, finally, to the seemingly impossible.

The central question of the play is whether the Witch's final statement is a warning, a temptation or a prophecy. What role do the Weird Sisters play in Macbeth's fate? "Wyrd" meant "fate" in Anglo-Saxon. But the word also suggests "wayward," the Witches being projections of Macbeth's wayward im-agination. Do they determine his fate or merely suggest what his ambition craves? Shakespeare thus asks, Are our lives determined by fate or by free will?

The prophecy arouses complex emotions in Lady Macbeth. Frequently called ambitious, she's concerned not with Macbeth as her husband but with her husband as king. Appealing to his manhood, she seduces and humiliates him into doing a deed that at first he only contemplates: "Glamis thou art, and Cawdor thou shalt be, thou shalt be what thou art promised."

Shakespeare took some liberties with the setting of his famous tragedy. The witches were ahead of themselves by 200 years: thanes were not to appear in that part of Scotland for another two centuries. "Birnam Wood moving to Dunsi-nane" could be quite a hike; ordnance maps reveal a distance of more than 10 miles between them, and the terrain itself is more than a bit difficult for even the sturdiest of soldiers done up as shrubbery. Also, King Duncan was mortally wounded near Elgin, probably in battle, rather than murdered while sleeping at Glamis Castle. There are a lot of ghosts in that place.

There was a king of Scotland named Macbeth in the 11th century, an early ancestor of Britain's Queen Elizabeth. The Queen's Mum, Lady Elizabeth Bows Lyon, of Strathmore, grew up in Glamis Castle. The castle and the ghosts are still there to this day.

So much for the facts and Scottish history. What about the fiction and our present production of Seattle Opera's "Macbeth"? And the concepts of French director Bernard Uzan and set and costume designer Robert Israel? They have put heavy emphasis on the presence of the Witches and greatly increased their numbers. There are spooky witches representing brides in white, and widows in black, with floating veils attached to their hands and knees - all through the opera, in every act, in costumes of different historical periods.

To quote Israel: "We decided that the rest of the characters in the opera are mid-19th-century characters. All of the uniforms smack a little bit of the Italian Risorgimento. We even have Victor Emmanuel show up during the prelude to remind us that this is really an opera about Italy: A chorus from the opera was used as a rallying cry for the Italian Unification movement. We want to tell a story about Italy with Scottish overtones - we are using some plaids to allude to the tartans of 11th-century Scotland - because, however you cut the cake, the opera is a mixed metaphor. It's about an 11th-century Scottish king, who shows up in a 17th-century play by Shakespeare, which was adapted by a 19th-century Italian composer into an opera that we're presenting in the 21st century. You have a lot to contend with."

Should be interesting. I haven't yet seen a Lady Macbeth in a crinoline, but I accepted with an open mind Fricker in a bustle and the Rhine maidens in bloomers. So let's hope the director and designer produce a tale told by a genius, full of sound and fury, signifying many things. And that Birnam Wood arrives safely at Dunsinane.

Gordon Hawkins will sing the role of Macbeth (with Louis Otey as alternate artist), and Andrea Gruber will perform the role of Lady Macbeth (alternate: Elena Zelenskay). Joseph Calleja will play Macduff, and Burak Bilgili, Banquo. The conductor will be Nicola Luisotti. Lighting design is in the hands of Christopher Akerlind, and Bernard Uzan directs.

It promises to be a great show. For ticket information, call 389-7676 or visit

Incidentally, the Magnolia and Queen Anne Preview Group will be presenting a preview of "Macbeth" on Saturday, April 29, at 6:30 p.m. For details, call me at 282-8161. TTFN

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