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Full of sound and fury: Bloch’s ‘Macbeth’ opera gets a rare airing

by Rick Schultz

May 29, 2013 | 11:55 am

A 1935 self-portrait of Ernest Bloch with a music score. Photo courtesy of Old Stage Studios

A 1935 self-portrait of Ernest Bloch with a music score. Photo courtesy of Old Stage Studios

Ernest Bloch, the renowned 20th century Swiss-born American composer, wrote just one opera, “Macbeth,” and it has rarely been produced in the United States since its 1910 Paris premiere. Now, the Long Beach Opera is presenting the opera’s first U.S. staging since John Houseman’s 1973 production, at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro on June 15, 22 and 23.

Like Houseman’s “Macbeth,” which was presented at the Juilliard School in New York, the Long Beach Opera’s production of Bloch’s three-act adaptation of Shakespeare’s five-act play will be sung in English in a libretto rescored by the composer in the early 1950s from the French to fit the English dialogue. 

It will feature baritone Nmon Ford in the title role, with soprano Suzan Hanson as the malevolently ambitious Lady Macbeth, tenor Doug Jones in the roles of Banquo, Duncan and Lennox, and baritone Robin Buck as Macduff. The Long Beach Camerata Singers will make up the chorus.

Although Bloch later became famous for his enduring Jewish-inspired works — “Schelomo” for cello and orchestra, the “Baal Shem Suite” and the “Sacred Service” —”Macbeth” shows him as a young composer absorbing the whirl of music around him, not only of Wagner and Mussorgsky, but of Debussy and Richard Strauss, as well. 

Completed in 1906 when he was 26, Bloch’s “Macbeth” already shows a striking confidence and maturity, not least because the young composer was risking comparison with the other operatic “Macbeth” up to that time — Verdi’s, which premiered in 1847.

“It’s very impressive for a first and only opera,” said Andreas Mitisek, Long Beach Opera’s music director, who is also stage director for this production. 

“Bloch had a great sense of timing and a gift for building tension and suspense,” Mitisek said. “He knew how to use music and a wide vocal range to underscore and portray emotions.” 

Mitisek especially admires the composer’s powerful handling of famous scenes like Macbeth’s dagger scene (“Art thou but/A dagger of the mind ...?”) and the guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, memorable for lines like, “Out, damned spot!”

The conductor, who plans to use a Romantic-size orchestra of 40 or so musicians to convey Bloch’s very melodic, lush sound, added that even the orchestral interludes in “Macbeth” “carry an emotional charge.” 

Because Bloch’s operatic version of Shakespeare’s narrative of witches, power struggles, murder and madness is heightened, Mitisek said it’s important to keep the focus around the two main characters. “Everything feeds into their thirst for power,” Mitisek said. “The play is like a Greek tragedy. The truth in it speaks to our time. We see these things happening over and over again.”

Mitisek, who is also general director of the Chicago Opera Theater, recently announced that that company will be giving performances of “Macbeth” in September 2014 at the city’s Harris Theater.

Although the Nobel Prize-winning French author Romain Rolland rated Bloch’s “Macbeth” highly in 1910, and, more recently, critic Andrew Porter called it the best opera based on a Shakespeare tragedy, Bloch didn’t write another.

“Bloch was not enamored of the intrigues and politics he observed in getting ‘Macbeth’ to the stage in Paris,” said David Z. Kushner, music professor emeritus at the University of Florida and author of “The Ernest Bloch Companion.”

Nonetheless, according to Kushner, between 1911 and 1918, Bloch worked on but did not complete a biblical opera, “Jezabel.” The sketches and drafts are in the Ernest Bloch Collection in the Library of Congress.

Ernest Bloch, second from left, with the cast of “Macbeth” in Rome, 1953.  Photo courtesy of the Ernest Bloch Foundation

In his later years, Bloch, like Saul Bellow in literature, came to dislike being thought of as a Jewish artist, preferring to be seen in a more universal light. Bloch’s daughter, Suzanne, a renowned early music specialist who died in 2002, promoted her father’s legacy for years, often noting that his Jewish-inspired music, which amounted to less than one-third of his total output, was crowding out other major works. 

Kushner agreed, citing Bloch’s five string quartets (“I wish they could find their way into the standard chamber music repertoire”), violin concerto, “Concerto Symphonique” (for piano and orchestra), “Sinfonia Breve,” the two violin sonatas and two concerti grossi as among the composer’s greatest accomplishments.

Bloch was the son of a cantor and not himself a practicing Jew, but he delved deeply into spiritual impulses. “It is the Jewish soul that interests me,” he wrote, “the complex, glowing, agitated soul that I feel vibrating throughout the Bible ... the sacred emotion of the race that slumbers far down in our soul.”

After he arrived in America in 1916, his “Jewish Cycle,” which includes “Three Jewish Poems,” the “Israel Symphony” and settings for voice and orchestra of Psalms 22, 114 and 137, made him famous. (Bloch became an American citizen in 1924.) 

Kushner noted that Bloch’s” Jewish label” was also “cemented by the imprimatur of a Star of David with his initials, EB, encased within on the cover” of his scores. 

Bloch’s grandson, Ernest Bloch II, 75, who plans to attend the opening of Long Beach Opera’s “Macbeth” on June 15, is taking up where his late Aunt Suzanne left off.

“My major purpose is to enlarge and extend the Bloch legacy,” he said by phone from Oregon. Ideally, he said, he would like to digitize all of his grandfather’s works to make them more available to the public.

Bloch was 21 when his grandfather died in 1959, and recalled visiting him many times at his home on the Oregon shore. “He loved America,” Bloch said. “He endured anti-Semitism and man’s inhumanity to man. When he got to New York, it was like coming to another planet.”

After a tumultuous, itinerant life, which included significant stints as the first director of the Cleveland Institute of Music and five years as director of the San Francisco Conservatory — Bloch’s students include George Antheil and Roger Sessions  — Bloch finally fetched up on the shores of Agate Beach in Oregon. 

The grandson observed that Bloch composed many of his finest works there, including most of his five rhythmically intense, brooding and meditative string quartets.

“When he settled in 1941 in the only home he ever owned, he finally got to a place where he could do what he was put on earth to do,” the younger Bloch said. “The later works were in many ways his best works.”

The composer also was once treated like a rock star. “He had one heck of an ego,” the grandson said. 

But, he added, Bloch also had a softer side: “I got to know him in the 1940s, and when I contracted polio at age 5, he showed me the importance of patience.” 

In “The Essential Canon of Classical Music,” Juilliard professor David Dubal said the composer “used his art to probe his psychological states,” calling him “an artist of lofty feeling, often with an agonized sense of suffering humanity.”

Bloch’s early score for “Macbeth” already embodies this sensibility. Moreover, Mitisek’s staging for Long Beach Opera’s production poses a question that tormented Bloch for most of his life. The audience, Mitisek said, will observe the opera from the left and right of the stage. 

“The action will take place between them,” the conductor said. “Like watching voyeuristically, with everyone looking at it from different angles. All the characters, good and bad, are also parts of us we don’t let out. Have we learned how to become more human? One hopes.”

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