The Baltimore Opera Company "Macbeth" that was unveiled Saturday evening earns fairly high marks on musical and vocal grounds but can't even manage a "gentleman's C" on the way it looks.
This was James Morris' first attempt at the title role, and the Baltimore-born and -bred bass-baritone performed it handsomely indeed. Macbeth is a role that is usually performed by a true baritone, and singers of Morris' voice type usually are heard in the role of Banquo, a role that Morris has performed with great success in the past.
It is not precisely true that he has moved "up" to Macbeth. For even after nearly a decade of singing Wotans in Wagner's "Ring" cycle, Morris has preserved his high notes and all his youthful flexibility. He brought to this portrayal a splendidly dark vocal character and an emotional generosity that paid genuine dividends throughout the evening, particularly in a despairingly beautiful "Pieta, rispetto, amore" in the final act.
Morris' Lady Macbeth, the American soprano Pamela Kucenic, was not as completely successful, but she was much more than satisfactory. Although there was occasionally an annoying wobble in her voice, she's a genuine dramatic soprano, with a rich middle and a solid top that permitted her to handle the high notes in the banquet scene's drinking song, and she had enough dramatic savvy to make her character's sleepwalking scene effective.
It was startling to realize that Jerome Hines, who will turn 73 this November, is still singing Banquo 35 years after he made a splendid recording of the role for RCA. At his age, no one could possibly expect him to sound like the Hines of old -- but, in a way, he does. His technique has always been so solid that the voice is still substantial, and he brought a nobility to the role that is only possible from an intelligent singer who has never stopped thinking about the music.
In the smaller role of Macduff, Daniel Hendrick brought a sweet-sounding, though smallish tenor, to "Ah, la paterno mano." In that of Malcolm, Christopher Petruccelli showed off a much larger tenor that did not always sound completely under control. The solo witches sang effectively, as did the chorus.
But what made all the impressive singing possible was the masterly conducting of Julius Rudel. Rudel's work was always fiery and incisive, and this veteran of the opera pit deserves his reputation as a conductor who knows how to provide a disciplined framework that allows singers to shine.
The design of the production left a lot to be desired, however. The Baltimore Opera doesn't have much money to spend on sets, but this production looked chintzy at best. There were almost omnipresent gnarled branches that were clearly supposed to symbolize something -- but what? And the burning sconces that helped light the production suggested the incense burners that the college students of the 1960s believed -- quite foolishly, one thinks -- made their dormitory rooms look so cool.