Heartbeat Opera is back with a vengeance. The maverick troupe’s Spring Festival 2023 is exploding with two impressive new re-imaginings of classic operas, Puccini’s Tosca (reviewed here) and Verdi’s Macbeth, rearranged and retitled Lady M.
If Tosca is very good, Lady M is outstanding. The Heartbeat team refocused and stripped down the full-length opera to a single 90-minute act with a cast of just six. A musical sextet driven by trombone and clarinet plays Daniel Schlosberg’s brilliantly quirky musical arrangements.
Through rooted in a pandemic-era online iteration, the new production seethes with physicality and stagecraft; in fact, in the relatively intimate space of the Baruch Performing Arts Center, with fly-girl choreography and a bit of audience participation, it’s an exceptionally visceral opera experience.
Voices of Power
None of that would matter without great voices and acting, and Lady M has both, starting with Lisa Algozzini. The diminutive Italian-American soprano makes the title role a tightly wound ball of dark energy. Her rich, powerful voice carries Lady Macbeth’s unbridled ambition to the skies, whether she’s rising from bed, pushing her husband to violence, or mourning an imaginary (or lost?) child. Baritone Kenneth Stavert matches her in strength, intensity and Verdi-worthiness as the thane Macbeth, here re-conceived as a white-collar executive.
The only other real character in this buzzing world of smartphones and tablets is Banquo, portrayed by the equally strong baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala. That leaves the three (Weird) Sisters, who serve a variety of functions, many not very witchy, including as a sort of Chorus. They perform energetic modern-pop choreography, sing through microphones that enable reverb effects, and propel and smooth much of the stage business. Mezzo-soprano Sishel Claverie makes a special impression with a smoky-cool alto.
Various elements of the production fuse into a compelling whole, even if I couldn’t follow what every bit of stage business meant. It might have helped if I could read the supertitles, but they were too high, small, and, to my eyes at least, fuzzy. That didn’t matter much amid the gripping and eerie musical and physical storytelling.
The stage lighting opens with a spot of white light expanding into a rectangle that slowly fills the stage. Together with the Sisters’ introductory dance, this establishes a frame that sets the action off as fabulism. Despite the modern-day setting, we could almost be seeing an ancient Greek drama.
The Heart of Heartbeat Opera
At the same time, the polished production values (Heartbeat Opera does a lot with a little) and the focused, agile acting give a high-end Off-Broadway vibe. Crowded projections help convey the characters’ moods and preoccupations. An extremely minimal set serves strikingly varied functions. Expert lighting transforms settings and states of mind.
Despite the story’s Shakespearean descent into tragedy, there’s a measure of airiness and humor withal. The banquet scene, with Lady M’s triumphant aria, provides some bright, even comic relief – until it doesn’t. Physicality together with lighting and sound, not special effects, conveys the supernatural. Some credit for all this must go to Emma Jaster, a movement artist who has taken the directorial reins with assurance.
The band too contributes to the viscerality. With so few instruments, each stands out, and you can feel the musicians’ somatic presence much as you can during a jazz set in a crowded club. The trombone makes an especially sharp impression, filling in where basses and cellos would normally sit in the sonic spectrum. Daniel Schlosberg’s arrangements are, as always, inventive, well-conceived, and just plain fun.
Lady M is a compelling, even mesmerizing evening of operatic theater. It runs in repertory with Tosca through April 23. Get tickets online.