Lyric’s harrowing ‘Macbeth’ casts a spell on crowds eager for opera again

Three leads in top form in unsettling production of the Verdi work.

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Bass-baritone Craig Colclough plays the title role in “Macbeth,” alongside soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as his ambitious wife.

Ken Howard

The ovations were enormous, even before the show itself started. Not for 18 months, in this era of COVID havoc, have crowds been able to gather at the Lyric Opera. Their Sept. 17 return at long last, in party mode by the diligently masked thousands, was for Verdi’s supernatural “Macbeth.” 

‘Macbeth’

Untitled

When: Through Oct. 9

Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker

Tickets: $39-$319

Info: lyricopera.org

Policy: Audience members must provide proof of vaccination and wear a face covering while in Lyric’s building.

David McVicar’s harrowing, witch-ridden production made its debut inside an auditorium that had been magnificently freshened. The hall’s legendary gilding is still intact, of course, but all is soothed by the fresh balm of gently circulating air, plush new seats that are staggered for better sight lines, and serenely smooth, ankle-friendly carpets and aisles. All the better to be scared out of our wits by a brilliant opera of grand proportions. 

The company’s new music director, Enrique Mazzola, an Italian opera specialist, was in splendid form at the helm, before an orchestra quite capable of sounding otherworldly or glorious, as needed, despite the long break. And a welcome Lyric Opera familiar, the great Verdi soprano Sondra Radvanovsky — Berwyn-born — went all in as the ambitious wife who seizes on the prophecy that her husband is to become king and goads him into considerable bloody business by way of hurrying things along. Note to would-be kings and queens: When it comes to prophecy, consider the source, and listen better to details. 

McVicar’s unsettling new production, his 10th at the Lyric, takes place entirely in a Scottish chapel, a dark space that would normally welcome a devout community, but instead intertwines rapture and horror. Its resident coven of witches delivers a startling prophecy to Macbeth and Banquo, who are friends, both of them successful generals in King Duncan’s army: Macbeth will be king, but Banquo will be the father of kings, the witches say. 

Almost immediately, these two become suspicious of each other. Meanwhile, no small detail, King Duncan is still very much alive. The gory events that follow will play out, one by one, in McVicar’s creepy sacred space. These superb rivals — bass-baritone Craig Colclough, in his Lyric Opera debut as stunned Macbeth, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, well-known to Lyric audiences, as Macbeth’s now-uneasy rival Banquo — complete the grand trio that will, with Radvanovksy, drive the show into glories of triumph, terror, murder and madness. 

The severe and commanding sets, designed by John Macfarlane, include an ominous painted drop that suggests the doom that awaits the gullible protagonists at their end. And the harbingers of Macbeth’s downfall are immediately on display in the strong performances by all three principals. The vocal artistry is top-notch throughout here. 

Colclough’s voice is capable of an alarming edge, a mercurial menace that his Macbeth can wield with easy fury. But from the very beginning, we also see him, hear him, lose his grip in what was an impressively relentless and deeply probing characterization. After botching the midnight murder of King Duncan by failing to plant evidence that will finger the servants, and then also turning Banquo’s murder into a very messy business, Macbeth is seen as drunk, tyrannical, abusive, and distracted in the very first minute of the banquet scene. His increasingly strange behavior was unhingement to behold. Van Horn’s Banquo, by contrast, provided the deep weight, the gravitas of a principled man who recognizes the true danger of Macbeth as a ruthless rival; Banquo must attempt the all but impossible protection of his son. Chicago audiences know Van Horn as a former Ryan Center alum. He has matured into a splendid artist. 

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Christian Van Horn plays Macbeth’s rival Banquo.

Ken Howard

As for the dark psychological journey of Radvanovsky’s ambitious Lady Macbeth — alive with an almost sexual thrill in her relish of glory and power in “Vieni t’affretta,” and even more compelling as she falls relentlessly into madness — the grotesque nature of her dreadful circumstance is tragically apparent in the arc and color of each phrase. This was a performance by an artist in command of her full powers. The sleep-walking scene, “Una macchia è qui tuttora!,” when she hallucinates that the blood of their victims won’t come off her hands, was spell-binding.

Through it all, an exceptional chorus of witches, including some children, performed as Verdi’s sinister hags. They added bleak resonance to this evening of great theater.

Before an audience that was genuinely hungry for it, in a newly upgraded magical space, one could not ask for more.

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