Marion Cotillard replaces Natalie Portman as Lady Macbeth

Our condolences to all those who had their hearts set on seeing Natalie Portman rocking the Shakespeare thing in the upcoming adaptation of “Macbeth.”

The Israeli-born actress, who was initially on board to play Lady Macbeth opposite Michael Fassbender, has just been replaced by Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

At least there’s still “Thor.”

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

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.”

Roman Polanski gives his side of the story

“People that don’t know me have an opinion of me that comes from the media. And that’s so far remote from what I am that I can’t even try to straighten it out.” These words from the controversial film director and provocateur Roman Polanski about his public image are the basis of a new documentary, “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir.” 

The film, which will be shown on June 2 as part of the 2013 Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, was produced by Andrew Braunsberg, a longtime friend of Polanski who also produced three of the director’s films, “Macbeth” (1971), “What?” (1972) and “The Tenant” (1976). Braunsberg came up with the idea of filming a conversation between himself and his friend while Polanski was under house arrest in Gstaad, Switzerland. At the time, Polanski was fighting extradition to the United States for an outstanding bench warrant linked to his infamous 1977 arrest for allegedly drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. Polanski was arrested at the Zurich airport in September 2009 on his way to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival. A Holocaust survivor whose pregnant wife was murdered in 1969, the Oscar-winning director is known as much for his personal dramas as he is for his film work. “The goal of the film is to show Roman at a very stressful time of his life while being under house arrest,” the film’s director, Laurent Bouzereau, said in a phone interview. “It’s Roman at his most vulnerable and most open, talking about his entire life and career during a very difficult time.”  

Bouzereau was asked by Braunsberg to look at the footage he shot of his conversations with Polanski to see if there might be a movie there. “I said, ‘Yes!’ ” Bouzereau recalled. “But it’s missing part of act two and, ultimately, a resolution. There were 30 hours of conversation to go through, and you want to make sure you tell the story in 90 minutes. I thought we should start the narrative while he was under house arrest, with Roman reflecting back. And then the last third of the film would be about what happened after he was freed and looking back at this entire experience.”

From left: Adrien Brody and Roman Polanski on the set of “The Pianist.” Photo by Guy Ferrandis

As Polanski noted, much of the public’s perception of him has come from outside sources. Innumerable articles have been written about Polanski, and two earlier documentaries focused on his legal problems, but, as Bouzereau pointed out, this film is the only firsthand account from the subject. “It’s a film that’s from the point of view of Roman Polanski, and this is the first time that he got to express himself,” Bouzereau said. “And it could only happen if he was surrounded by friends. It would have never happened if it was a reporter or someone out to get dirt. It was in his own words and what he was willing to share with the world about what he’s gone through. So, for better or worse, it is Roman in his own words about all of those different situations. The Holocaust, for one, Sharon Tate being another, and the situation with the American girl being the third.”

In the film, Polanski’s reflections begin with his catastrophic childhood. Born Rajmund Roman Thierry Polański in Paris in 1933 to a Jewish father and Russian-born Catholic mother — both said to have been agnostic — Polanski and his family relocated to Krakow, Poland, three years later. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, they were subjected to the horrors of living under Nazi occupation and the Holocaust. Eventually, his family was sent to concentration camps, leaving the young boy alone until he was taken in by another family. 

Years later, Polanski was reunited with his sister and father. His mother, however, did not survive the camps. Many of Polanski’s memories of that dark period were re-created in his 2002 film, “The Pianist,” for which he won an Academy Award for best director. In 1969, Polanski was once again beset by tragedy when Tate, his young, pregnant actress bride, was brutally murdered by members of Charles Manson’s cult. Polanski was in London working on a script with Braunsberg when he got the devastating news.  

 Of all of the events in Polanski’s life, however, it’s his 1977 arrest for allegedly drugging and then having sex with a 13-year-old girl — charges that through a plea bargain arrangement were reduced to the lesser charge of engaging in unlawful intercourse, before he fled the United States hours before being sentenced — that long ago turned the filmmaker into a polarizing figure. And that notoriety has now spilled over to Braunsberg and Bouzereau’s film. 

The documentary made its debut at the 2011 Zurich Film Festival, the same festival that Polanski was trying to attend when he was arrested. The premiere took place with little fanfare, but when it was shown at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, the critics took issue with the film’s one-sided point of view as well as with the subject’s relationship with the filmmakers. 

Roman Polanski and wife Emmanuelle Seigner in “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir.” Photo courtesy of Eclipse Films

“It’s already controversial from the way it was received by the press,” Bouzereau said. “I think a lot of people felt that it was a very subjective view of the man, which is stating the obvious. It is subjective, in that it’s his best friend talking to him and it’s a friend of his — me — putting it together, so it is subjective. But at the same time, it’s clearly from his voice. There’s no third-party voice advancing the story. It’s really Roman guiding the discussion, so the viewers should take away that this is a firsthand account of what Roman thinks about himself, his life and the different episodes, as opposed to hearing it from other people judging him. 

“I think it allows for people who knew those stories and judged him to understand the person and make up their own mind on where they stand about his character.” Bouzereau also pointed out an example of achieving that goal with his film. 

“At one screening, a woman came up to me and said, ‘I walked into this movie hating him, and I came out understanding him. And I want to thank you for this movie.’ I thought that was a great way to explain what we were trying to accomplish. We’re not trying to change people’s minds about their view of Roman, but at least understand what he has to say and what his side of the story is.” 

“Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir” will screen on June 2 at 7 p.m. at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.