Chicago Opera Theater revisits a forgotten ‘Macbeth’

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At the Long Beach Opera, Nmon Ford playsthe title character in Ernest Bloch’s “Macbeth,” a role he’ll repeat at Chicago Opera Theater. | PHOTO BY KEITH IAN POLAKOFF

By Kyle MacMillan/For Sun-Times Media

A mysterious trio of soothsaying witches, a murderous, power-hungry general and a guilt-ridden wife ultimately driven to suicide. These compelling central characters drive “Macbeth,” one of Shakespeare’s most famous and powerful dramas.

Nineteenth-century Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi wrote the best-known operatic adaptation of the play, but it is not the only one. Early in his career, Swiss-born American composer Ernest Bloch, wrote a very different take that premiered in 1910 at the prestigious Opéra-Comique de Paris and has been largely forgotten since.

The Chicago Opera Theater, which has built its reputation on championing offbeat and overlooked works, will present four performances of just the second American professional production of Bloch’s “Macbeth” beginning Saturday evening in the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

The company is using a reduced, 110-minute version of the work, which runs about 2½ hours in its complete form. This abridged take is drawn from a 1950 English translation of the original French-language work that was undertaken under Bloch’s supervision.

Why this opera fell into obscurity is not clear, but it has had its champions. “It is difficult at some moments to resist the temptation to regard ‘Macbeth’ as Bloch’s masterpiece,” noted American composer Roger Sessions, who studied under Bloch, said in 1927.

Chicago conductor Francesco Milioto, who is leading this production, which will incorporate the Chicago Sinfonietta and Apollo Chorus, believes that because Bloch wrote just one opera and was much better known for works in other forms, it was just essentially forgotten.

“When you discuss operas,” Milioto said, “Bloch’s ‘Macbeth’ for me has never come up, not because it’s a good or bad piece. It’s an excellent piece. It’s very dramatic and very effective. But he’s just not a composer that you put in that conversation, in that canon of operas, and he really should be for this piece.”

Although “Macbeth” contains echoes of such composers as Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy, audiences who know some of Bloch’s major works, such as the Jewish-influenced “Schelemo” for Cello and Orchestra, which was written about a decade later, will feel right at home.

“He has a way of making drama with many different little fragments, aspects, rhythms, chords and harmonies,” Milioto said. “Nothing is settled in here, just like the story. It’s very rare that you get a chord with the proper bass note, the proper spacing.”

Sets are kept to a minimum in this production, which is directed by Chicago Opera Theater’s general director Andreas Mitisek. Instead, the emphasis is on projections, including live, in-the-moment video images shot using a bird’s-eye camera above the stage and three other shifting cameras.

In some cases, the performers will play to the latter cameras, which will be mounted at times on a long central table, and, in other cases, they will hold the cameras, giving audiences a look at what they are seeing.

“You have the view as the regular theater audience,” Mitisek said, “but you also have a very intimate, close-up [look] at what’s happening in some of these conversations. And since we have very expressive singer-actors, it’s very interesting to have these different options.”

Baritone Nmon Bird, who sings the title role opposite soprano Suzan Hanson as Lady Macbeth, admits that “Macbeth” was not one of his favorite Shakespearean plays, but it has grown on him since his involvement with Bloch’s adaptation.

“After working on this opera,” he said, “I feel a little differently about it. I can see the inner workings and the sinews and how all the synapses fire with all the characters. It feels like a different experience now.”

Ernest Bloch’s ‘Macbeth’

Chicago Opera Theater

When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 13, 17 and 19, and 3 p.m. Sept. 21

Where: Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph

Tickets: $35-$125

Info: (312) 704-8414;

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