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Quinn Kelsey as Macbeth in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.Michael Cooper, Michael Cooper 2022

The stars – and Scots – were aligned on Friday night, as the Canadian Opera Company opened its spring season line-up with Sir David McVicar’s new production of Verdi’s Macbeth.

Really, it’s a perfect pairing of director and opera; last seen at the COC in 2019 for his dank Rusalka, McVicar’s style leans hard into darkness and discomfort – elements I’m told are embedded into Scottish DNA. And the Bard’s play brims over with unease, telling the story of a ruler on a knife’s edge, crushed beneath hubris and guilt. Verdi calls Shakespeare’s play “one of the greatest creations of man” and it’s not hyperbole: what better cathartic experience than the story of a powerful man, driving himself (and his wife) to madness and death over the pursuit of even more power?

The darkness doesn’t only come from McVicar – it’s inherent in the music of Macbeth. Amid his signature sound of nobility, empires and high stakes, Verdi composes a score that is somehow off. The instrumentation isn’t quite right; the melodies curve downward when they should soar upward; there’s labour in the music where it should amble with ease. It’s a fascinating way to rediscover Shakespeare, to hear Verdi’s imagination of iconic theatrical moments – “Out, damn spot,” anyone? And under the taut brilliance of conductor Speranza Scappucci, the COC Orchestra delivers these moments like a thrilling film score.

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Kelsey fills the role of Macbeth like a glove; his baritone is constantly round and impossibly beautiful.Michael Cooper, Michael Cooper 2022

Just like the discomfort that lives in Verdi’s music, the true power of this production comes from the performances. The COC has piled onstage a world-class cast of singers, and there isn’t a weak link in the bunch. Up-and-coming Canadian tenor Matthew Cairns created a moment for himself with his portrayal of Macduff, including a stunning display of legato and careful artistry in his fourth-act aria, “Ah, la paterna mano.” Turkish bass Onay Kose sings the ill-fated Banquo with gorgeous ring in the sound, his voice alerting us that he was a good guy in a world where good guys end up dead. Even the brief appearances of Canadians Tracy Cantin, Adam Luther, and Clarence Frazer were jam-packed with stunning sound.

As Lady Macbeth, Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska is a slow burn. One of two sopranos called in fairly last-minute to replace operatic superstar Sondra Radvanovsky – Macbeth’s curse is far-reaching, it seems – Pendatchanska found herself on considerable display. Vocally, her Lady Macbeth gradually reveals itself; her top range explodes with power and her unabashed chest voice amplifies the murderous qualities that Verdi writes for the role. Pendatchanska’s array of musical tools at times seemed disconnected, as though we hear more effort than art. Yet it all seemed to add up to a strange kind of stoicity, a unique kind of vocal strength to match one of history’s most uniquely powerful women.

But the night belongs to Quinn Kelsey as Macbeth. This is a role debut for him, and just like his performances in the COC’s recent La traviata and Rigoletto, Kelsey’s Macbeth fits like a glove. His baritone is constantly round and impossibly beautiful, and each time he sings in Toronto he seems to find more depth and boom to fill the Four Seasons Centre. Kelsey’s signature sound comes with an effective amount of straight tone – used in that thrilling, à-la-Pavarotti way – and it creates a bit of vocal alchemy that turns this Macbeth into a real person who sounds a little bit like ourselves.

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A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Macbeth.Michael Cooper, Michael Cooper 2022

Kelsey’s Macbeth is white-knuckled and precariously perched; one almost feels sorry for him, desperately clinging to prophecies and dreams to validate his dangerous pride. Alongside Pendatchanska’s Lady Macbeth, the pair emit a creepy kind of intimacy. They say Macbeth is “l’opera senza amore” (“the opera without love”), and though there’s little romance or lust between them, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have an unwavering partnership that comes out of pursuing an ambitious goal together. Kind of like House of Cards protaganists Francis and Claire Underwood

The success of the COC’s Macbeth happens not necessarily because of McVicar’s direction, but rather in spite of it. McVicar largely allows the action to unfold, letting the troubled characters roam with their thoughts in the cold and uncomfortable-looking rooms of a Scottish castle (the work of set designer John Macfarlane). There’s a backdrop of Baroque-like, charioscuro art that reminds us of dark clouds and impending storms and other symbols of doom.

Yet before McVicar can answer any of our basic questions – what year is it, anyway? – he tends to muddle the story with unnecessary devices. Three unnerving children wander the stage, pointing balefully at Macbeth and presenting his wife with bloody fetuses and backwards-crab-walking like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. The witches, imagined by Shakespeare as a trio of crones hovering over a cauldron, seem to be experiencing some sort of mass hysteria ripped right from Salem, Mass. What could have been a clear, pointed interaction between Macbeth and three actual witches was now a messy crowd scene, more a competition of who can act witchier than a true anchor point of the story.

Despite gratuitously creepy kids and cheesy attempts at being shocking, Macbeth still shines as an excellent piece of theatre. Kelsey is luxury casting, and Maestra Scappucci is a lesson in bringing opera from page to stage. Not even a whispered “Macbeth!” in the theatre can change that.

The Canadian Opera Company’s Macbeth, co-produced with Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts through May 20, 2023. The role of Lady Macbeth is shared by Alexandrina Pendatchanska and Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska. Tickets and details are available at

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