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Review: Ernest Bloch's 'Macbeth' a welcome treat by Long Beach Opera

For all of the attention lavished upon West Coast composers lately, one who has mostly escaped the net is Ernest Bloch.

Though Swiss-born, Bloch lived a good deal of his life on the West Coast, directing the San Francisco Conservatory and teaching at UC Berkeley. He spent his last 18 years in the tiny town of Agate Beach on the Oregon coast -- and you can hardly get further West than that. 

So Long Beach Opera, champions of the new and/or neglected, stepped into the breach Saturday night, staging what was touted as the U.S. professional premiere of Bloch’s sole opera, “Macbeth.”

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One reason why Bloch has been in eclipse is that as a Romantic out of time, he doesn’t fit in with the revival of 20th century West Coast mavericks, even though he was open-minded enough to have assimilated all kinds of styles -- a West Coast trait, if you think about it. 

If we hear any Bloch live these days, it is usually his magisterial cello concerto, “Schelomo.”

“Macbeth” is an early work, written from 1904 to 1909 when Bloch was in his 20s.  The musical language is actually right in sync with that time, teeming with Richard Strauss flourishes and echoes of Wagner.

Yet one can hear Bloch’s own distinctive harmonic idiom as early as the Prelude, and when the orchestra and chorus pounded away, this was the biblical Bloch of “Sacred Service” and “Schelomo.” It doesn’t strike me as a great opera score, but it is certainly a very effective one, getting a lot of mileage out of suspenseful underscoring, focusing tightly upon the murderous Macbeth and his dialogues with his pushy Lady.

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Ever-resourceful LBO head Andreas Mitisek -- multi-tasking as stage director and production designer -- took the company to yet another bizarre location, a room within the World Cruise Center in San Pedro close by the Vincent Thomas Bridge. He placed the audience on two sets of risers facing each other, with a long wooden table between them doubling as a stage within a few feet of the front rows. If the intention was to make everyone feel the inward-looking claustrophobia of this setting of Shakespeare’s play, it succeeded. 

The three witches (Ariel Pisturino, Danielle Marcelle Bond, Nandani Sinha) writhed and hissed under eerie green and blue lighting. Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth cavorted lustfully, if fully-clothed, on the table after the deeds were done. 

Mitisek promised a lot of blood, but though there were blood-stained shirts aplenty, there was nothing like the buckets of the fluid that have become business-as-usual on European stages.

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This time Mitisek left the conducting to Benjamin Makino, who led a sometimes-scrappy 33-piece orchestra behind a scrim in a side room. The balances between voices and instruments were surprisingly good, but Bloch’s more grandiose orchestrations seemed to cry out for a bigger band.      

Baritone Nmon Ford made an overwhelming impression as Macbeth in all his facets; soprano (and LBO mainstay) Suzan Hanson had some grandly Wagnerian moments as Lady Macbeth. 

Along with a few cuts in the score, Mitisek compressed the parts of Banquo, Duncan, Malcolm, a blind servant, and one of the murderers for one singer, tenor Doug Jones, and baritone Robin Buck doubled as Macduff and another murderer.  All made a gripping, close-up case, in Bloch’s 1950 English translation, for a rare piece that deserves to be heard.  

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Long Beach Opera: "Macbeth."  World Cruise Center, 100 Swinford Way, San Pedro, 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; sold out; (562) 432-5934 or www.longbeachopera.org/tickets.  Running Time: 110 minutes.

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