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Maria Guleghina (Lady) and Željko Lučić (Macbeth) [Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]
13 Nov 2007

Macbeth at the Met

Verdi, a born skeptic where the supernatural is concerned, did not seem to know quite what to do with the witches in Macbeth and was far too loyal to Shakespeare to reduce their role – he knew how closely the play was bound to them, famous for them.

Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth
Metropolitan Opera House, performance of November 3.

Maria Guleghina (Lady), Željko Lučić (Macbeth), Dimitri Pittas (Macduff), John Relyea (Banquo), Richard Thomas (Malcolm). Conducted by James Levine. Production by Adrian Noble.

Above: Maria Guleghina (Lady) and Željko Lučić (Macbeth)
All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

 

(Shakespeare wrote the play, remember, for James I, a descendant of Banquo’s, a passionate believer in witchcraft and the author of a book on demonology. There’s no way to know how much of this credence the author shared.) In the opera, the witches’ off-kilter polka in the opening scene is peculiar but not exactly sinister; their whirling waltz in the cauldron scene is not music for a ballroom but does not stink of black magic. He does much better with the ghostly evocations of bagpipes (bassoons and oboes) for the apparitions of the kings.

Stage directors tend to share Verdi’s ambivalence (if that’s what it was), and they have the additional problem of making sense of what modern audiences no longer take seriously. In a recent production in Istanbul, the witches were humorless demonic forces motivating all the wicked actions of the opera – which I think is a mistake. Ludicrous witches, however, were the great flaw in Adrian Noble’s new production at the Met – an enormous crowd of bedraggled park bench ladies in ratty housecoats, clunky shoes and socks, pin-on hats, and handbags wielded like the weapons of Monty Python drag queens. Are they intended to be funny or eldritch? Though this is a puzzlement Verdi may have shared, it seemed a desperate attempt to find a modern equivalent in gooseflesh to Shakespeare’s voices of Fate who vanish into thin air. (The Met’s witches do not vanish at all; they run offstage.)

The scenes that tend to stump the average director stumped Noble as well: Banquo the soldier vet sings his haunted aria to Fleance after acknowledging the tramps gathered around a steel-drum fire; their casual friendliness then turns inexplicably to menace. The omission of a forest of cut branches for ambulatory Birnam Wood is regrettable. The sensuality at the core of the Macbeth marriage is clear enough from their duets and complete trust in each other; it isn’t necessary to have every encounter conclude rolling into bed. The Sleepwalking has been cued by Verdi’s highly original choice to have the Lady’s snatches of dream uttered while the orchestra plays – but no one ever sings – the melody; this is undercut when the two witnesses’ interjections of horror come from seated psychiatrists observing the patient from a therapeutic distance.

Noble’s production achieved most when it tried least hard. The gloomy forest semicircling the stage area gave an appropriate mood to the tale, and the sequoia-sized columns that move about to become Duncan’s trapping bedchamber or an imperial banquet hall (with the splendid addition of grotesque chandeliers and grotesque choreography) are highly effective uses of the Met’s enormous stage. The blazing light show (probably only visible from downstairs) that accompanies the apparitions is a thrill, as are the mouthing faces in glass bubble monitors.

And the singing, you ask? Well, after October’s underpowered Lucias (both casts), it was a great pleasure to hear five (yes, five) Met-sized voices easily filling the cavernous theater. Maria Guleghina sang a sumptuous “Vieni t’affretta,” filling one with anticipation for her Norma, but followed it with a cabaletta that was sloppily all over the place to fill one with alarm at the thought of her as Norma. The coloratura of the drinking song also lurched, but for this scene it’s appropriate; she acted the woman who loves being the life of her parties – and seemed humiliated when the her husband’s hysteria ruined her moment. The murky suspense of “Le luce langue,” sung on her back on a couch as she idly daydreams of power, curdled the blood, but the Sleepwalking Scene was a distraction, delivered full voice as she histrionically clambered over chairs and played with a rocking ceiling light – perhaps she can deliver this climactic scene introspectively, with some exposure of character, but as staged, it went for very little.

Macbeth_Act_IV_scene_9581.pngA scene from Act IV of Verdi's "Macbeth."

To Guleghina’s weird, wet and wild bra-popping Lady, Željko Lučić’s Macbeth made a contrast and a complement, brooding where she was flamboyant. This is appropriate: action is taken by Macbeth, but only after long consideration (and wifely exhortation), the great soliloquies state the point of the play, of Shakespeare’s essay on the self-destructions of ambition. Stout and weary in formal clothes already drenched in the sweat of ghostly visitations at his big party, he sits disconsolate, exhausted, an impersonation of has-it-all-been-worth-it? success. Lučić has a voice of true Verdian warmth and heft, though a few sustained notes troubled him. The beauty of his singing underscored the tragedy here: Macbeth is not intrinsically evil; he’s an ambitious man who knows he is doing wrong but cannot stop himself. Lučić should prove an elegant interpreter of many another of Verdi’s introspective baritones.

John Relyea, a bit young and sexy for a role that sounds and usually looks patriarchal, sang an impressive Banquo. (He makes a sexy ghost, too.) Dimitri Pittas, a New Yorker who’s been coming up through the Met ranks, sang Macduff with a brash but interesting sound, a clarion Verdi tenor with a youthful ping. Macduff, with his one aria and one-fourth of a finale, is a popular spot for a not-yet-star-Verdi tenor to make a first impression, and Pittas made it. Richard Thomas was impressive in Malcolm’s few lines: another bright, focused tenor.

Relyea_and_Lucic_in_Macbeth.pngJohn Relyea as the ghost of Banquo and Zeljko Lucic in the title role of Verdi’s “Macbeth.”

James Levine is said to have campaigned for the new production of this opera: the charm for anyone with an appreciation for Verdi’s mastery, his originality, in this breakthrough score was clear in his guidance of its many shivery effects. My only objection was the battle fugue and the “bardic” finale, which did not sweep the theater with an arc of relief as, after three hours of horror, they should.

Despite its imperfections, this was a production that (unlike the Lucia) inspired me to wish to see it again. That will be possible in May with very different singers, among them Gruber’s Lady, Alvarez’s Macbeth, Pape’s Banquo and Calleja’s Macduff – and I wouldn’t miss it.

John Yohalem

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