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Leads take 'Macbeth' halfway to Verdi vision

Always a demanding taskmaster, during the preparations for the 1847 premiere of "Macbeth," Giuseppe Verdi offered his two leading singers some pointed advice.

To the baritone-singing Macbeth, he demanded that he approach the role with greater emphasis on dramatic acting than singing. And he called upon the soprano singing Lady Macbeth to produce "the voice of a she-devil."

Had Verdi been able to attend the Canadian Opera's stunning new production, he would have found only one of those admonitions successfully carried out.

Hungarian soprano Georgina Lukacs as Lady Macbeth sang with a sinister darkness and chilling edge that was not just appropriate, but also absolutely essential, as she plots and prods her husband into the series of murders that bring him first to the throne of Scotland and ultimately to his own death. It's the role of a she-devil, and Lukacs sounded like one. In the Act 4 sleepwalking scene, her performance was musically and dramatically so riveting that comparisons to the hypnotic fury generated by Maria Callas or Ljuba Welitsch seemed apt.

On the other hand, in baritone Pavlo Hunka's portrayal of Macbeth, he seemed more like a statue than an actor. That's a pity, because his voice successfully varied from full-throated bravura to timid but appealing lyricism, effectively reflecting the emotional wringer his wife's continual goading was putting him through. Vittorio Vitelli will sing this role Sunday and Oct. 5.

"Macbeth" was Verdi's 10th opera and the one that provided the turning point from his promising early operas into the rich era that produced "Rigoletto," "LaTraviata" and "Il Trovatore." He had been bowled over by Shakespeare from his teen years, and this Canadian Opera production is one of such striking visual effects that it underscores Verdi's skills as a dramatist so absorbingly that it tends to minimize the distraction of Hunka's wooden characterization.

Set in an indeterminate time frame, Dany Lyne's staging evolves from two groups of 12 gray leather-and-chrome love seats inhabited at first by the chorus of witches. They are separated by a long front-to-back ramp with a similar throne as its increasingly important focus. With surreal symbolism, the ramp tilts, is raised at both ends and does slow aerial gyrations as the tensions tighten.

Costuming, also by Lyne, is nondescript gray for most of the women and dark tartan kilts with gray jacketlike tops for the men. Against all this gray, the use of red grows in prominence with the successive murders, on blood-stained backdrops and the splattered gray love seats. The increasing starkness of David Finn's lighting also marks the progress of Macbeth's descent into despair.

Stage director Nicholas Muni makes effective use of the space under the airborne ramp for crucial entrances, but for the most part he has chorus and soloists standing around.

Lesser vocal roles find Turkish bass Burak Bilgili as a sturdy Banquo and tenor Roger Honeywell delivering a searing, poignant Act 4 lament as Macduff.

Conductor Richard Bradshaw leads a crisp, musically exciting performance, with fine orchestral-vocal balance and tight, expressive massed ensembles, save in the final chorus of Act 2, where the ironic lilt of some of the repeated lines was covered by excess bravado.

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