Heartbeat Opera seems to have found the way to separate themselves from the rest of the pack of alternative opera companies here in New York. Their way is to inject the standard repertory of grand opera with fresh ways of presenting the rich beloved scores. Enter music director Daniel Schlosberg, a Brooklyn-based composer-pianist who is their ingenious arranger for both Puccini’s Tosca and Verdi’s renamed Lady M, and conductor and pianist for Lady M. He arranges Tosca for a band of eight, Lady M for a band of six. Consider both of these Herculean feats with sumptuous results.
Lady M, adapted by Jacob Ashworth and Ethan Heard, clearly puts the focus on “Mrs. Macbeth.” Director Emma Jaster succeeds in getting the audience to follow that behind every great man is an even greater woman pushing all his buttons. The Mrs. is the impetus for every one of her husband’s actions. She is the instigator, the staunch supporter, and the cheerleader, and yes, there are subtleties to all three of those roles. Lady Macbeth is first and foremost a strong woman, yet this opera opens up on the Macbeths in bed as Lady Macbeth weeps uncontrollably over the loss of her infant child. Her husband escapes from bed, dresses and starts his day, ready to move on from their loss. If there was any doubt she could be a doting mother, there are the projections of her with her child seen as a testament across the white blanket.
We are introduced to the three witches, now referred to as “sisters,” who later double as the servants of the Macbeth household, almost immediately. Macbeth “texts” his wife about the meeting and the prophecies after his encounter with the three sisters. She reads from her phone…think how many times reading a letter blocked the audience’s view of the future queen’s intense expression. The aria “Vieni t’affretta” has never seemed this urgent. Lisa Algozzini’s Lady M is vibrant and breathless in her urgency to see all three prophecies come to fruition. Her daring her husband to strike out and earn King Duncan’s crown is a white hot heat so much so that she loses her robe revealing arms that could probably lift and hurl any objects out of her way. Lady M is an invincible force to be reckoned with.
Baritone Kenny Stavert as Macbeth has his larger-than-life moments that bring those intense photo ops of a young David Caruso in CSI: Miami to mind. In fact there are many broad selfies, mostly taken by Lady M, in the mourning of Duncan which swiftly becomes the pageant of the crowning of Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth. After all, will they ever have a more resplendent moment in their lives together than this obligatory coronation? Why not document it? The banquet celebration comes hot on the heels of the murder of Banquo, done mafia-style with gunshots through a windshield. Let it not be said the banquet hasn’t been touched by some humor. Lady M has handed out invitations to audience members in the front row. Some unsuspecting operagoers get drafted into drinking with the Macbeths and various members of the band while Macbeth is provoked by the ghost of the now bullet-ridden Banquo as he crawls out from under the glass banquet table. Stavert is chilling in the “Va, spirto d’abisso,” perhaps with less heft than one would prefer, but he is still quite young and will probably rival a classic Piero Cappuccilli or Sherrill Milnes once he is in his prime.
Bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala is a striking Banquo. The scene with his son as they are about to be ambushed by Macbeth’s henchmen is particularly tender. Musik-Ayala’s “Come dal ciel precipita” is achingly beautiful and it is easy to foresee the singer doing a role like this in a major house in the very near future. His fine acting in the early scene with Macbeth and “the sisters” is compelling enough that we are able to suspend that disbelief despite our knowing how all of this will eventually turn out.
The three sisters – Samarie Alicea, Taylor-Alexis Dupont and Sishel Claverie move from human portrayals to ethereal shadows seamlessly. Their tight harmonies and willowy solo lines are a study in difficult music made beautiful.
Schlosberg’s arrangements for the small orchestra defy all probability, yet they remain faithful to Verdi’s intentions. He refers to Lady M as “an explosion of sound.” His guitarist plays five instruments in this adaptation…one of them being a banjo. The percussionist plays about twenty instruments. The band is unusually amplified, and electronics are used to manipulate instruments and voices throughout the entire score. The remaining instrumentation is provided by violin, clarinet, trombone and Schlosberg on piano and it is all quite glorious.
Afsoon Pajoufar’s scenic design, complemented by Camilla Tassi’s projections make for a very vivid tableau. As the percussionist’s setup is rather extensive, it butts into what would be a larger playing space, but somehow it all seems to be exactly where it should be. One of the more interesting set pieces is the long banquet table that has a glass top and open sides that allow a more believable way for dead Banquo to be hidden, yet very much part of the scene. Oliver Wason’s lighting design is suitably garish for the Duncan procession, but bright where it needs to be. The use of a lit “wheel” is quite clever in that it doubles as a make-up mirror, a steering wheel, and even a halo.
Beth Goldenberg’s stunning costumes are of an unidentified, yet universal time. The formal wear for the Macbeths at the pageant, coronation and banquet is quite dashing for him and elegant for her. Banquo, too, gets the benefit of something that could grace the pages of Men’s Vogue. The peach and blue outfits for “the sisters” make them fit in comfortably as humans as well as the otherworldly. Michael Costagliola’s sound design is a constant – there never really seems to be pure silence, which probably wouldn’t be right for how much is going on in the opera anyway.
In keeping with Ms. Jaster’s intentions, aside from a brief chorus at the very end of the opera, all the drama really ends with Lady Macbeth’s infamous sleepwalking scene. Ms. Algozzini’s attack on “Una macchia è qui tuttora” is something you don’t dare look away from. A consummate actress, Ms. Algozzini makes one think back to that poor woman crying in her bed at the beginning of the opera yet again in her very final moments. Her aspirations and cool ambition served her and her husband so well…until they didn’t.
Heartbeat Opera is presenting Lady M in repertory with Tosca, which sets Puccini’s iconic opera as performed in Teheran by a troupe of singers determined to defy Iranian authorities, through this Sunday only. See one or see both; these performances are both revelatory undertakings of two important fixtures of the operatic repertory. For “grand opera,” Heartbeat’s productions are pretty grand.
Lady M (through April 22, 2023)
Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.ci.ovationtix.com
Running time: 100 minutes without an intermission