The San Diego Opera doesn't stage its own productions very often. It's a matter of economic priorities.
Normally, Ian D. Campbell and his enterprising cohorts borrow well-traveled packages--sets, costumes and concept (if there happens to be a concept)--from rival organizations hither and yon, mostly yon.
The director on duty serves essentially as traffic cop on someone else's artistic turf. It must be a frustrating job.
Verdi's "Macbeth," a.k.a. "Macbetto," which opened at the Civic Theatre Saturday night isn't like that. Davis West has designed brand-new old-fashioned decors for what turns out to be his valedictory effort here. Wolfgang Weber, who has worked until now within a hand-me-down framework, has finally been given a challenge that he can legitimately call his own.
The result, alas, isn't illuminating.
The local "Macbeth" sounds better than it looks. That isn't saying much.
West has created a clunky unit-set that forces the quasi-Shakespearean plot to unravel within a primitive courtyard flanked by huge stone slabs. The scene is decorated, as needed, with props pretending to be symbols, most notably a massive crown that hangs from a beam in the sky. Tons of dry ice provide billows of obfuscating mist. Ominous clouds swirl on the ever-alienating scrim.
Most crucial, perhaps, a long shallow trench at the front of the stage houses a coven of Halloween witches. Weber asks these peekaboo spookettes to do a lot of self-conscious, obtrusive creeping and crawling. They do it dutifully. Also clumsily.
The basic concept is corny. The execution is sophomoric. It trivializes both music and text.
Luckily, Edoardo Muller is in the pit to defend Verdi, and he does so with uncommon vigor and point. No conductor can make the weak passages in this patently uneven opera sound vital. The finale, for instance, is trite and anticlimactic. But "Macbeth" also contains some of Verdi's most searing inspirations. Muller moves quickly whenever banality beckons, and savors poignant expansion in the great monologues and concertati.
The cast isn't exactly the answer to a Verdian's prayers. At least everyone is earnest, and everyone works hard.
On Saturday, Timothy Nolen introduced a handsome, burly, soft-grained baritone in the title role and conveyed a reasonable degree of dignified torment. His voice, unfortunately, tightens up at the top--just where one wants it to blossom--and, with his white beard and generous girth, he tends to suggest the wrong Shakespeare protagonist: Falstaff rather than Macbeth.
Rosalind Plowright is an uncommonly sensitive singing actress. But she doesn't seem particularly well-cast as the demonic yet agonized Lady Macbeth.
She sang "La luce langue" with a fine, insinuating pianissimo. She projected a useful aura of muted horror in the miraculous sleepwalking scene, here something closer to a mad scene. Under pressure, however, her tone turned metallic, edgy and unwieldy. The coloratura passages were merely approximated. Climactic high notes were avoided where possible, otherwise dropped in haste or flatted in desperation. This cruelly complex role seems to have claimed yet another victim.
As the stodgy Macduff, a.k.a. Macduffo, Antonio Barasorda's tenor sounded properly heroic yet potentially lyrical, if not invariably steady. In the most reliable contribution to the evening, Kenneth Cox brought a sturdy black bass to the rolling platitudes of Banquo. The youthful comprimarios were feeble, all of them.
The chorus, trained by Martin Wright, performed lustily and with reasonable accuracy. The ubiquitous witches cackled con brio.
The costumes, generally generic, were attributed to Susan Mess. Although the scenery was new, the clothing came from a warehouse. In context, it hardly mattered.
The dressy non-capacity audience seemed able to contain its enthusiasm. Toil and trouble.
"Macbeth," presented by the San Diego Opera at the San Diego Civic Theatre, 202 C St. Remaining performances Tuesday at 7 p.m, Friday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., April 5 at 7 p.m. Tickets $20-$90 (standing room $11, one hour before performance). (619) 236-6510.