Bloch: Macbeth

University College Opera
Bloomsbury Theatre

Ernest Bloch’s reputation was much greater during his lifetime than now, both in his native Switzerland and in the US where he moved in 1916, quickly becoming a vital force on the East Coast musical scene. His single opera, Macbeth, premiered successfully in Paris in 1910, but has received scant attention since then. This was in fact its first British staged performance, a fact which testifies as much to the work’s limitations as to the enterprise of University College Opera, a semi-professional outfit responsible for no fewer than 17 UK premieres in its 58 year history.

Bloch’s score is fascinating, with constant variation of orchestral colour, and clever use of unsettling, nagging motifs, as well as a beautiful evocation of the peace Macbeth, horrified, comes to realise has been forfeit. Stylistically close both to Debussy and Richard Strauss, but veering off now and then to explore the Jewish inflections for which the composer is best remembered, there are moments of great insight as well as – particularly in the chorus sections – jarringly clunky, music-hall schlock. It is also extremely difficult to sing, on account both of melodic lines which float in mid texture but require Straussian intensity, and of Bloch’s reincorporation of Shakespeare’s tricksy English to rhythms laid out for French.

Katharine Rohrer (Lady Macbeth) and Richard Rowe (Banquo) stood out among the professional soloists, as did the veteran Welsh tenor Ryland Davies, who appeared as Duncan. For the amateurs, the witches offered a mostly compelling spectacle, aided by the striking designs of Bridget Kimak, and by the amusing note that the third witch, after graduating, was hoping to turn her dark craft to the service of forensic psychology. Charles Peebles conducted cleverly, helping his orchestra through the occasional crisis and keeping energy levels high in a work whose taut dramatic arc is not immune from a tendency to sag.

Review from the Guardian, 25 March

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