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Bloch Macbeth (revised version)

Witches – Mimi Kroll, Jessica Blackstone, Ella Jackson
Macbeth – George van Bergen
Banquo – Richard Rowe
Lady Macbeth – Katherine Rohrer
Duncan – Ryland Davies
Macduff – Carl Gombrich
Lady Macduff – Louise Kemeny
Malcolm – Hal Brindley
Lennox – Woon Kim
A Porter – Ed Davidson
An Old Man – Matthew Quirk
A Murderer – Rory Mulchrone
A Servant – Simon Hall
Son of Macduff – Laura Murphy
Apparition – Alicia Bennett

University College Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Charles Peebles
John Ramster
– Director
Bridget Kimak – Designer
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting
Bloomsbury Theatre, London Monday/Tuesday,
March 27 & 28, 2009


University College Opera has a proud tradition of unearthing rare and neglected operas and this year have come up with the premiere British staging of Bloch’s Macbeth which, in itself, is an opera with an unusual history.


A youthful Bloch composed it in the heady mix of musical life that characterised Paris in the opening years of the twentieth century. Its first run of performances at the Opéra Comique in 1910 was a success, but the war's troubled times intervened and againthe same followed an Italian revival in 1938. 


It was not until the 1950s, when Bloch had been resident in America for many years, that he re-visited the opera, making significant changes to accommodate an English text  and it is this version that UCO have staged with considerable success.


Much of Shakespeare’s original is quoted verbatim, so of necessity the singing is very much in a declamatory style, with an accompaniment that allows the words to be put across with admirable clarity – there was no need for surtitles.  By far the most interesting music is found in the numerous orchestral passages, which display a wide range of texture and sonority – inventiveness of the highest order.


It is also a work which seems ideally suited to UCO’s practice of mixing a handful of professional singers with others for whom music is a second string, for whom there are a good number of smaller roles to tackle.


In the title role, George von Bergen gave a performance of real maturity and total conviction which was well matched by his Lady M (Katherine Rohrer).  The interaction and shifts in temperament of these two characters really is the dramatic backbone of this piece, and is demonstrated most effectively in the third act with Lady Macbeth’s mad scene (Out, damned spot) and Macbeth’s reflective soliloquy Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.


Ryland Davies put in a special appearance as the aging Duncan and it was good to see Carl Gombrch back on stage again as a strongly voiced Macduff. Richard Rowe’s customary impeccable diction was in evidence as Banquo and the three witches were both glamorous and scary, not least when they turned up in Act 2 in the guise of WW1 nurses.


I am always an admirer of John Ramster’s direction and unerring instinct for creating maximum impact with minimal resources, and he was well supported by Bridget Kimak’s striking set and costumes and Jake Wiltshire’s evocative lighting.


The orchestra, again made up of students of other disciplines, never put a foot wrong under the baton of Charles Peebles, breathing life into this gorgeous score.


Comparisons with Verdi’s more famous version of this story are inevitable.  Bloch’s gentle choruses cannot match Verdi’s heart stopping moments when the revelry of the banquet it halted by the appearance of Banquo’s ghost, nor the disturbing quality of Verdi's full coven of witches.   But, if you want to return to Shakespeare’s dramatic balance, with emotions heightened by a superb orchestral score, then Bloch is the man for you.


Congratulations to UCO for a significant achievement especially as so many of the protagonists have fitted it in whilst engaged in their studies of subjects other than music


Serena Fenwick


For us, this notable first UK staging of Ernest Bloch's early and only opera made for an unforgettable theatrical experience. One cannot over-emphasize the quality of the whole enterprise; this was unquestionably a more exciting event than many costly opera revivals in the major opera houses.This university college production represents an admirable aspect of Opera in England which merits national and international recognition and support. Not that there was any problem in filling the theatre, with mainly enthusiatic young people cheering their peers.

We were provided with 100 of Dan Swerdlow's splendid photos of the production, and I cannot forbear sharing below several of those.


And a word too for the model programme book with all the right contents (the opera's performance history and names of all participants, with photos of the key people) and none of the gossy adverts which help to support the costly progammes elsewhere.

Surfing the web for Bloch's Macbeth, I find that there have been two recordings, the better probably the 1st of these two
5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful Opera, Powerful Performance :

And looking at Seen&Heard's illustrated review - - Keith Warner’s staging offered little more than a mere sequence of – albeit extraordinary – images, leaving the audience with nothing but a diffuse feeling of unease - - I would guess the UCL capped previous productions. [Editor]

























Photos: Dan Swerdlow