“We live in an age when we explain everything to death,” Darko Tresnjak muses by phone the day before the opening of L.A. Opera’s ambitious new production of Macbeth, Giuseppe Verdi’s venerable Shakespearean opera, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The director and co–scenic designer adds that he’s trying “to be connected to my bad dreams, keeping mysterious things that should not be explained.”
Tresnjak, who was born in the former Yugoslavia and raised in Poland and the United States, has a lot of mysteries to solve this week. Macbeth is the dramatic opening to L.A. Opera’s 2016-17 season; as ringmaster of this large, three-ring circus, Tresnjak has to perform a delicate balancing act to satisfy all the disparate groups involved in the production. He's in charge of an unusually large cast of dancers and singers — including legendary vocalist Plácido Domingo, the general director of L.A. Opera, who portrays the tragic title character — and he has to choreograph every step they take within, across and above an imposing, sprawling set. He must reconcile the often-competing desires of the opera company’s donors and subscribers with purists who insist on a traditional interpretation of Verdi’s beloved opera, which features an Italian-language libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei that’s based on Shakespeare’s classic play, even as it takes certain liberties with the original text.
At the same time, Tresnjak must infuse the production with enough arty and creative elements to make the ancient story about Macbeth’s ruthless quest to become king of Scotland relevant to modern audiences.
With this version of Macbeth, “Two of my great passions are coming together,” explains Tresnjak, a longtime director of plays and Broadway musicals, with a special emphasis in works by the Bard. “I’ve directed 25 Shakespeare plays and 25 operas, but never a Shakespearean opera before.”
He’s no stranger to L.A. Opera, having directed a double bill of The Unbroken Jug and The Dwarf in 2008 and The Birds in 2009. Last year, Tresnjak helmed L.A. Opera’s popular version of The Ghosts of Versailles, a gloriously lavish, slightly macabre reimagining of the French Revolution. Housed in a monumental re-creation of a royal palace, it was the local company’s most expensive production to date. Discussing the challenges of mounting both Ghosts and Macbeth, he says, “The scale is comparable, but [with Macbeth] you have to account for the chorus, which is a huge continuous presence in this opera. It’s quite complicated.
“Getting 52 people on- and offstage — it happens quickly, and it can’t be a very organic process,” Tresnjak continues. Referring to the extensive creative staff as well as the large cast, he adds, “It’s a collaborative art form but not necessarily a democracy. On an operatic scale, it’s more intense.”
The creative crew includes costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb, who’s worked extensively with film director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) and was responsible for the inventive art direction at the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Her vivid costumes give a dash of flair and color that offsets Macbeth’s gray Scottish setting. Tresnjak partnered with co–scenic designer Colin McGurk, who translated the director’s old-school drawings into a more modern visual spectacle, in what Tresnjak describes as “a therapeutic” process.
The production’s wide-ranging action also requires the input of fight director Steve Rankin and “climbing consultant” Daniel Lyons, who has the opera’s squad of witchy dancers literally scaling the set's walls. With such a large cast of chorus singers and dancers, Tresnjak realized there was nowhere to go but up if he wanted to avoid having the performers clumped together in a static group. The stage is dominated by a two-story version of Macbeth’s castle, whose exterior is spiked with numerous rungs so that the dancing witches can nimbly climb up and down the wall. At times they sprawl and dangle flat against the wall in unsettling poses, like spiders, adding an air of creepy menace.
The witches and Lady Macbeth are given expanded roles in Verdi’s opera. “In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth has 750 lines, and the role of Lady Macbeth is [only] 280,” Tresnjak explains. “Verdi, for whatever reason, was truly inspired by Lady Macbeth. She’s given a succession of blood-curdling arias, although stamina-wise both parts are challenging.”
The director even traveled to Acapulco to stay with Plácido Domingo’s family, so that he and the exacting Spanish singer could fully investigate the character of Macbeth, who’s so obsessed with fulfilling the witches’ prophecy that he’ll become king that he starts murdering his perceived rivals for the throne. “We went through the opera page by page, line by line, in detail. Part of Plácido’s brilliance is his utter meticulousness about every moment.”
Macbeth is a triumphant star turn for Domingo, who started his celebrated career as a tenor but mainly sings as a baritone now. He’s teased audiences with relatively limited roles for L.A. Opera over the past two seasons, including 2015’s revival of Giacomo Puccini’s farcical Gianni Schicchi and an intermittently satisfying version of another Verdi opera, La Traviata, in 2014. But in Macbeth, Domingo is a powerful presence, stalking the stage with assurance and aplomb as his warm, vibrant tone gives depth and emotional resonance to his haunted character.
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As the scheming Lady Macbeth, who’s even more preoccupied with gaining power than her husband, Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk is astonishing. During Act 1, as the witches prance around in a campy fashion, her chilling voice cuts through the production’s occasional artifice and restores a necessary mood of dread and fear. Semenchuk’s fierce intensity is matched later by Roberto Tagliavini as the doomed Banquo. L.A. Opera regular Arturo Chacón-Cruz steals several scenes as a sterling-voiced Macduff, in another heroic role that further cements the Mexican vocalist’s position as a rising tenor in the tradition of Domingo.
As directed by Grant Gershon, the large chorus is impressively forceful, while James Conlon, who has conducted more than 100 versions of Macbeth, guides the orchestra with nuanced restraint in the opening overture and with intuitive grace throughout. Although some of the production’s special effects, such as gigantic Mardi Gras–style dancing heads that bedevil the king, are more goofy than scary, the searing vocal performances by Semenchuk and Domingo are what really make this Macbeth so memorable.
The Music Center, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Wed., Oct., 5, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Oct. 8, 7:30 p.m.; Thu., Oct. 13, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Oct. 16, 2 p.m.; $27-$329. (213) 972-0777, laopera.org.