Wednesday October 8th, 2014 - Considering that Verdi's MACBETH is one of my favorite operas, it's a bit strange that until tonight I had only sat thru four live performances of it in my long opera-going career. My first was a very good performance in Hartford, Connecticut with a vocally stunning Lady Macbeth from Cristina Deutekom. In 1983, Riccardo Muti led a glorious concert performance of MACBETH with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall: Renato Bruson gave a lesson in Verdi baritone singing and enjoyed a huge success, shared with Elizabeth Connell who did a fine job with the Lady's difficult music. NYC Opera's procuction with Lauren Flanigan and Mark Delavan kept me in the theater til the end, though a repeat a couple of seasons later sent me to the exit after Flanigan's first aria. And I stayed for a full performance of the Met's current production despite not really liking a lot of it and being rather put off by Maria Guleghina's hit-or-miss singing of Lady Macbeth.
I started to go to The Met after Rysanek had already given up the role of Lady M. And somehow I managed to miss performances by Nilsson, Dalis, Arroyo, Bumbry and Verrett, all singers I greatly admired; I can't remember why I didn't go to see them in this opera. I walked out on Renata Scotto's Lady, and more recently on Nadja Michael's; I always wished that we could have had Behrens and Malfitano in the role.
So tonight was my fifth complete in-theater performance of MACBETH, featuring the closest thing to an all-star cast that The Met is likely to put together these days. The production, which features so many of the clichés that today's opera directors and designers go in for, does have its visual moments. But such labors as the constructing of a pathway of chairs for Lady Macbeth to make her exit along after her sleepwalking scene are pointless and distract from the central drama of the work. The in-sync gestures and reactions of the witches were particularly ludicrous, but at least their rocking chorus "S'allontanarano!" wasn't cut (it often is). The appearance of the visions at the witches' den is not well-staged: we don't know that these floating figures are Banquo's heirs, though his appearance with a mirror is quite eerily lit. Then there's the jeep.
Fabio Luisi set good tempi all night - moments when a singer wanted to go faster or slower were reasonably well-resolved. Luisi did push voices for volume a couple of times: he seemed to be coaxing Rene Pape to up the decibels in Banquo's aria, but the basso wasn't buying it.
Anna Netrebko, enjoying a popular success as Lady Macbeth, sounded pretty awful in the character's great opening scena. With its hushed reading of Macbeth's letter, the great outpourings of longing for power in "Vieni, t'affretta" and the daemonic thrust of the cabaletta "Or tutti, sorgete", Verdi sends his soprano from the scorching heights to the darkest chasms of chest voice, and with plenty of agility needed along the way. Netrebko pushed her voice mercilessly, artificially darkening the bottom range and with unpleasantly metallic high notes showing a widening vibrato. Yes, we all know about Verdi's letter saying Lady Macbeth should sound choked and harsh, but Netrebko's voice here just sounded unhealthy.
After this, much of Lady Macbeth's music is subtle and insinuating and Netrebko did quite well by it; in some of the big ensemble passages Netrebko continued to force, but the cushioning sound of chorus and orchestra made it more palatable. The sleepwalking scene was atmospheric and well-sung though the final high D-flat was kind of a skin-of-her-teeth moment.
My feeling is that after three or four years on her present course, Netrebko will be unlistenable; not that it will matter: she'll go on singing and being cheered because she's a star.
There's so much to admire in Željko Lučić's performance as Macbeth: real Met-sized singing, excellent use of dynamics and colour, intense dramatic involvement. Yet all of this is under-mined by his tendency to wander off-pitch. Tonight Lučić had so many truly impressive passages, but the recurring flatness kept encroaching. He really got it together for "Pieta, rispetto, amore", Macbeth's great final aria, which won the baritone a deserved ovation. Throwing himself compellingly into the drama, Lučić lept onto the prone Netrebko at the end of the scene in the witches' lair for a fast fuck.
Rene Pape's Banquo had a high quotient of beautiful sound meshed with a surety of expression that made his the outstanding vocal performance of the evening. Especially marvelous was his sense of foreboding in "O qual orrenda notte" just before Duncan's murder is discovered. His aria was deeply expressive and beautifully shaped, and his refusal to rise to Luisi's volume challenge was the mark of a singer who knows what he's doing and won't be gainsaid. The basso good-naturedly stayed on throughout the second half of the evening, appearing as Banquo's ghost and taking his bows long after his singing scenes were over.
Joseph Calleja as Macduff was very impressive in the ensembles following Duncan's death and at the fateful banquet. Oddly, his aria made less of an effect: he sang it well enough, though with a trace of sharpness here and there; but Luisi took a rather matter-of-fact approach here so that the tenor was only able to work in a couple of expressive piano moments as the music pushed forward.
Noah Baetge showed a nicely pingy tenor in the thankless role of Malcolm. Claudia Waite's up-tight lady-in-waiting (more of a personal assistant to Lady M in this production - I was surprised they didn't give her a cellphone) was a nice gem, and I had the feeling that she was rather chiming in on some of the ensemble passages, given her boss vocal as well as clerical support. Richard Bernstein was again wasted on a tiny role; he looked super as the punky, devilish Murderer and made me wish he had an aria to sing. Ashley Emerson and Jihee Kim piped up clearly as the Bloody and Crowned Children respectively and James Courtney was an effective physician.
All evening I kept thinking what a great opera this is; and yet I always find the final chorus supremely anti-climactic. And enough with the flag-waving already.
Metropolitan Opera House
October 7, 2014
Lady Macbeth............Anna Netrebko
Bloody Child............Ashley Emerson
Crowned Child...........Jihee Kim