The music serves Shakespeare in Bloch’s seldom heard ‘Macbeth’

SHARE The music serves Shakespeare in Bloch’s seldom heard ‘Macbeth’

As the title couple, Suzan Hanson and Nmon Ford prowl after each other in the Chicago Opera Theater production of Ernest Bloch’s “Macbeth.” | Keith Ian Polakoff photo

By Andrew Patner/For Sun-Times Media

You’ve heard of — or at least heard the music of — Swiss-turned-American 20th-century composer Ernest Bloch. And you’ve certainly heard of “Macbeth.”

But there’s almost no chance you’ve heard Ernest Bloch’s “Macbeth.”

That’s a shame, but one that you can remedy this week as Chicago Opera Theater presents a powerful Chicago premiere of a work Bloch wrote in the early 1900s in the hours he could squeeze in at night while working in his father’s tourist shop in Geneva in his 20s.

Already highly trained as a composer, the young Bloch was inhaling the earth-shattering music of Debussy and Strauss and the still fresh legacy of Wagner as he hungered in the calm of his native land for a production in Paris. When “Macbeth” opened in the French capital in 1910, critics fussed about his “cosmopolitan” and “hybrid” tendencies, hardly coded words for Bloch’s Jewish background and name, and the work essentially disappeared.

Bloch emigrated to the U.S. in 1916, and further rightward political shifts in Europe in the 1930s caused revivals to be canceled or banned. A reworking of the libretto from French to English that Bloch made to better match Shakespeare’s text had to wait until 2003 — 44 years after the composer’s death just shy of 79, at home along his adopted Oregon Coast — for its first professional presentation, in Vienna.

This sort of history is just what gets COT’s general director Andreas Mitisek going, though. Last year with his other company, Long Beach Opera, he staged and produced, in a tight alternative site at a disused shipping terminal, the U.S. professional premiere, 103 years after that ill-fated Paris launch.

Mitisek has now taken that Southern California presentation and rethought it for COT’s usual Harris Theater home. He’s engaged a much better orchestra — 35 members of the Chicago Sinfonietta, sounding in absolutely top form under musically polyglot conductor Francesco Milioto — than he had out there, and added 36 voices from the Apollo Chorus, prepared by Stephen Alltop, and eight promising members of COT’s Young Artist Program. And letting loose his hugely committed Long Beach Macbeths, baritone Nmon Ford and soprano Suzan Hanson, in a swirling world of the always creative video designer Sean T. Cawelti has given us a riveting, 110-minute evening of power-hungry madness, blood and regret for what cannot be undone.

Where Verdi’s far more famous opera of the Scottish play molds the text and story to make just that, an opera, Bloch is much more focused — for better or worse in purely operatic terms — with letting music serve Shakespeare’s play. The orchestra is the real narrative force here, and for the most part the singers have gripping declamatory lines and exchanges rather than arias, songs or other set pieces. In many ways, Bloch anticipated the storytelling and sweep of sound films 20years before there were such things.

This is mostly a different musical world from the later works that made Bloch’s name such as “Schelomo: A Hebrew Rhapsody” for cello and orchestra, the first Concerto Grosso for strings and the “Sacred Service.” But it shares with those popular pieces Bloch’s lifelong sense of urgency and restlessness with frequent changes of rhythm, timbre and harmony.

Ford and Hanson prowl after and pounce upon each other both musically and dramatically on the long, rotating dining table that serves as the only standard prop. Each captures his or her character in both forceful madness and gnawing uncertainty. Video projection of their faces enhances rather than distracts from their performances. Three COT apprentices — sopranos Brittany Loewen and Helen Wyatt and mezzo Cassidy Smith — are the Witches, wholly engaging even as they double as equally slithering onstage videographers. Apprentice tenor Joe Shadday handles multiple male roles well, and Lyric Ryan Center grad baritone Paul Scholten lays it on as Macduff. (Mitisek has judiciously condensed roles and the original three-act structure, effectively increasing focus and intensity.)

David Bradke’s lighting is a model of how to create visible darkness. Altogether fitting with every other aspect of this unusual rediscovery.


Chicago Opera Theater.Francesco Milioto, conductor


When:7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday; 3 p.m. Sept. 21

Where:Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph

Tickets: $35-$125

Info: (312) 704-8414,

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