by William Shakespeare
directed by Blanka Zizka
September 29, 2010November 13, 2010

The Philadelphia Inquirer

The cost of producing Shakespeare rarely comes with a discount, financially or psychologically. Even after 400 years of unbroken performance histories, the plays keep demanding more.

"Not a piece you do just any day," says Robert Driver of Verdi's Otello - the one operatic adaptation of Shakespeare that harnesses the full power of the original - which he's directing in its first Opera Company of Philadelphia production, opening Friday at the Academy of Music.

Across Broad Street, the Wilma Theater's co-artistic director, Blanka Zizka, is staging her first Shakespearean play, Macbeth, but says she might as well be doing an opera, with simultaneous rehearsals for fights, dialogue, music, and witches - all of which will come together in its first preview performance Wednesday. She admits to considerable trepidation: "I was very intimidated before I started."

The characters are towering. The stories depict the rise and fall of epochs. But the starting point for such ambitious Shakespeare-based productions is money. For both OCP and Wilma, these shows are the season's budget-busters.

The Macbeth saga of murder begetting murder on the Scottish throne required a $110,000 grant from the Philadelphia Theater Initiative, covering a 20-actor cast, two choreographers, and two composers. Costs are further offset by scheduling a mere three-character play later in the season, in this case Theresa Rebeck's The Understudy.

Though acclaimed as the single greatest Italian opera, Otello is not often seen because the story about a Moorish warrior brought down by jealousy requires twice the production of, say, Rigoletto. Lighter-weight operas get by with an orchestra of 30; Otello requires that the Academy's pit be stuffed to capacity with 69 players. Onstage, 68 choristers, 24 members of the Commonwealth Youthchoirs, and 13 principal singers require expensive period costumes. Some need two. The budget: $1.7 million.

Yet it isn't all about money. Zizka has been putting off this Macbeth for the last two seasons because, as a native Czech, the intricacies of Shakespearean language seemed beyond her. Only after working with language coaches from London's Royal Shakespeare Theater did she feel the endeavor was possible.

And now? "Everybody in my office says, 'You look so happy and you're just flying around here.' I'm having a really great time," she said. "When you do anything by Shakespeare, you have to look at what's been done before. And then you can stand on the shoulders of giants."

If you're ready. Had OCP music director Corrado Rovaris been offered Otello in his first season in Philadelphia, the answer would have been no. "You have to plan a lot in advance," he said. " . . . There are few people in the world who are able to approach this kind of score."

The primary casting problem is the title role, requiring not just a stentorian voice, but also a fearless attitude. In his opening notes, Otello must roar - one thing that kept Luciano Pavarotti from taking the role into his repertoire. Hesitation has no place, says Clifton Forbis, who is singing the role in Philadelphia.

"It's either in you or it's not," he says. "I actually look forward to that [opening] moment. I absolutely love it. If you're worried about making your initial impression, you're not going to make a good one."

Almost by definition, great dramas are a window into a complete, self-contained world. But Shakespeare plays force their interpreters to chose between several possible worlds. Many interpretive decisions in Otello have already been made by the composer, whose swift, eventful music takes little heed of operatic formulas and is inextricably linked with the drama at every turn.

Yet what embodies Otello's murderous jealousy? Such are the crucial psychological questions even in the conservative OCP production, which maintains the opera's original setting of 15th-century Cyprus. Often, the answer is racial. Otello is a Moorish outsider who is all too conscious of having transcended his class by marrying a woman from a highborn Venetian family. But not for Driver: His Otello explodes over the age difference - the possibility that his manhood is threatened by a younger rival.

Would such an interpretive difference be all that noticeable amid the broad strokes of most operas? Probably not. But this one, written near the end of Verdi's long creative life, suggests and demands endless details. "I said to Clifton yesterday, "Why don't you look at your hands before your strangle her?' He said, 'Great!' " recalls Driver.

In Eastern Europe, where Shakespeare isn't played in the original language, directors can be more collaborative than curatorial, and even write new scenes in radically rethought productions. Zizka's Macbeth is true to the text, but gives the play a realistic update from 11th-century Scotland to mid-20th-century wartime in attempting a scope much wider than the grotesque, power-mongering Macbeths.

"I see it more as a play about political consequences. We're moving from a Christian-style governmental rule . . . into Macbeth, whom I crudely think of as being in the time of Mussolini," she says, "and then moving on to Malcolm and a new age of democracy."

Witches, and the magic that comes with them, might not sit well in a political allegory. But ravaged survivors do. "The witches . . . have been expelled from society, maybe because they have syphilis, or lost too many children," says Zizka. "But they also believe totally in their own magic. . . . As we go into the play, the witches are starting to do unnatural things, like climbing the walls as if they're on a sidewalk. I can always explain the scene as seen through Macbeth's eyes and feverish imagination."

Therein lie opportunities for experimentation. The witch scenes are being choreographed by Brian Sanders, whose hallucinatory dance theater works are acclaimed annual events in the Live Arts Festival. Composer Pavel Fajt, a fellow Czech whom Zizka met while he was on a tour stop in Philadelphia, is fashioning an aggressively ambient score through custom-made electronic instruments - one being a metal circle, roughly a foot in diameter, strung with springs and wires emitting ominous sounds intended to evoke the dark heart of Macbeth.

The musical needs didn't stop there. Zizka decided that old King Duncan needed to be heralded by the cast singing a traditional Latin psalm. Sound designer Daniel Perelstein wrote the music one night after rehearsal, taught it to the cast the following afternoon - and then took the effect one step further: Though it will be sung onstage, he herded the cast into the eerie acoustic of the Wilma Theater stairwell to record it, hoping the live and recorded elements will blend to startling effect.

Clearly, not all Shakespearean mysteries are to be solved. Some will be broadened and deepened. "This has been an opportunity to try out bizarre things," said Perelstein. "We're hopefully raising more questions than we're answering."