Macbeth by Giuseppe Verdi
at the Metropolitan Opera
2007 Newsday review
Macbeth occupies a special place in Verdi’s career. After its 1847 premiere (Verdi revised it in 1865), the composer dedicated it to his beloved father-in-law, calling it “dearer to me than all my other operas.” Verdi reportedly made the first Macbeth and Lady Macbeth rehearse their great duet 150 times—the last time with cloaks over their costumes, in the theater lobby, while the world premiere audience waited impatiently.
With its bleak E-minor tonalities and eerie, muted woodwind writing, Macbeth is a nightmare in music. Giddy ceremonial numbers sound with brutal irony, and the grief of the Scottish people and the hero Macduff take on an almost unbearable pathos.
The Metropolitan Opera, which last performed Macbeth in 1988, got some of this right in its new production. In the Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, it has a Macbeth of the highest caliber, vocally and dramatically. Lučić sang with unfailing beauty at all levels of dynamics, from a tortured whisper to a confident, embracing full voice, his sound sometimes seeming to issue from a twilight world of anguish. The evening’s highlight came in the last scene, when Lučić’s Macbeth, broken and bewildered, poured out “Pietà, rispetto, amore” with a buttery legato and soft-grained but potent, soulful tone.
Alas, his Lady Macbeth was not remotely his equal. Maria Guleghina gave forth an ear-splitting array of shrieks and squeaks, sometimes breathing in the middle of words, sometimes omitting consonants altogether when the going got rougher. By and large, the sounds she emitted had only a glancing relationship to Verdi’s music. The less said about her titter-inducing histrionics, the better.
As Macduff, tenor Dimitri Pittas sang “Ah, la paterno mano” with a bright and pleasing, but monochromatic, timbre, wanting a touch more abandon. A grave, dignified Banquo, John Relyea offered a fine sense of style and unfocused tone. Russell Thomas was Malcolm, delivering his handful of lines with zest and incisiveness.
The Scottish people are a character unto themselves in Verdi’s nationalistic reading of Shakespeare’s tragedy, and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus under Donald Palumbo sang slendidly. As shaped by conductor James Levine, the desolate chorus “Patria oppressa” throbbed like a wound, the choristers’ sound ranging from a howl of grief to weary, halting whimpers.
Levine’s savage, venomous reading of the score was beyond praise, studded with grim, yawning silences and chords that thudded and crashed with the finality of death. Mark Thompson’s handsome black sets—including a vertiginous cyclorama against which a forest festered in bruise-like purples and blues—were filled by director Adrian Noble with inanities: witches decked out like Mary Poppins gone bad, Lady Macbeth bumping and grinding her way through her drinking song like a tenth-rate Carmen, pointless gropings and swinging lamps. Verdi’s dearest opera deserved better.