Suzan Hanson, Nmon Ford: The bond is erotic in COTs Macbeth.
  • Keith Ian Polakoff
  • Suzan Hanson, Nmon Ford: The bond is erotic in COT’s Macbeth.

Sometimes, when a work is seldom produced, there are reasons.

In the case of Ernest Bloch’s Macbeth, finished in 1909 and currently getting its local premiere at Chicago Opera Theater, there was the rise of the Nazis in Bloch’s native Europe. Like the work of other Jewish composers, it was suppressed.

After that? Maybe the fact that this is an opera nearly devoid of memorable vocal music.

Except for some wonderful choral moments, the singers in Bloch’s Macbeth (not to be confused with Verdi’s) are stuck with recitative. They basically orate in a singing voice, while the orchestra gets to play all the beautiful, nuanced themes.

And COT is using Bloch’s own English translation of the Edmond Fleg libretto (originally in French), which is too choppy to do the Bard justice, even when it quotes him.

Still, this innovative production, directed by COT general director Andreas Mitisek, is an intense experience, in no small part because the two leads, baritone Nmon Ford as Macbeth and soprano Suzan Hanson as his lady, deliver compelling performances in hugely demanding roles. Bloch’s version of the story puts a tight focus on the bond between the infamously ambitious wife and her bewitched husband; with Mitisek’s direction, which includes a marital rape scene, the considerable erotic heat is turned up.

Also central to the success of this production: excellent work by 36 musicians of the Chicago Sinfonietta, under the baton of conductor Francesco Milioto, and the Apollo Chorus, heard (mightily), but not seen until the bows.

And then there’s the video. Conceived by Mitisek and designed by Sean T. Cawlti, it’s as prominent a player as the cast, chorus, or orchestra. After an opening backdrop of fast-moving clouds that made me seasick, it’s mainly used to project magnified details of the onstage happenings—a startled eye, a drop of blood—to screens above the actors. This can be distracting (or even, occasionally, silly), but it’s an effective strategy for a work that’s all about lust, guilt, ghosts, and madness.

Throw in the supertitles and you’ve got opera for multitaskers. The whole thing unfolds in a single, frenetic, 110-minute sitting.

Performances continue tonight and this weekend.

Macbeth, Wed 9/17 and Fri 9/19, 7:30 PM; Sun 9/21, 3 PM, Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph, 312-334-7777,, $35-$125.