Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Met - Macbeth - 04/09/12

Composer Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda
Producer/Director: Adrian Noble
Macbeth: Thomas Hampton
Lady Macbeth: Nadja Michael
Banquo: Günther Groissböck
Macduff: Dimitri Pittas

Performance scheduling Gods often seem to work in mysterious ways, and this is after all their prerogative, but it really becomes a problem when the occasional lack of coordination yields frustrating, if still elating, results. For example, after a couple of relatively quiet weeks on the musical front, I suddenly find myself with four events scheduled back-to-back, and that’s not counting the ones I had to give up due to irreconcilable timing conflicts.
The first case in point is Verdi’s Macbeth at the Met. After too much procrastinating, the only option still available was last Monday at the ungodly starting time of 8:30 pm. So my heart was almost set on the American Classical Orchestra’s concert at the Alice Tully Hall, until I was made an offer I simply couldn’t resist in the form of a free premium orchestra seat in the premium company of my New York opera buddy Nicole to Macbeth. My favorite play by Shakespeare reworked by one of my favorite opera composers and featuring Thomas Hampton, one of the most popular Met regulars, with the added bonus of Nicole’s presence was just too enticing a combination to pass on.

Verdi’s first foray into The Bard’s dense world was his less successful one, but it still gives good musical drama galore. Trying to break away from the bel canto tradition, Macbeth is not overflowing with instantly catchy tunes and show-stopping numbers. It benefits, however, from the still young composer’s increased focus on the human aspects of his characters while keeping the story moving briskly along. And Shakespeare’s unforgiving tale of naked ambition and its consequences sure had enough material for psychological study and plot twisting to concoct a riveting opera.
American baritone Thomas Hampton has been singing at the Met for over a quarter of a century now and does not show any sign of even slowing down any time soon. So there was absolutely no reason why this versatile artist wouldn’t make a superb Macbeth, and he indeed handled the role with remarkable poise and flair. His naturally aristocratic demeanor was sometimes a bit too polished for such an ultimately weak and cowardly criminal, but his voice was beautifully rich and elegantly nuanced, easily overcoming the many technical challenges of the notoriously difficult score.
Those challenges were less well handled by Nadja Michael, the German soprano who was making her debut at the Met as his plotting consort. The true mastermind behind all the political intrigues and murders, Lady Macbeth is a wonderfully juicy role for the right singer. Alas, this is not what we got on Monday night. While she was cutting a striking figure as a viscerally icy and definitely ambitious blonde, Nadja Michael’s singing was too often loud and unrefined. Granted, Lady Macbeth does not exactly stop to smell the roses on her way to the throne, but she’s still a fascinating character and deserves better than the few respectable moments we got to enjoy with her. This also proves that if casting Ms. Michael was part of the Met’s alleged plan to sex up their productions in order to draw a younger audience, it is likely to fail miserably if they don’t make sure that those attractive newcomers can sing as well.
I’ve always thought that the biggest irony of Macbeth is that not only does the one truly memorable aria, “Ah, la paterna mano”, appear in the last act, but it is also sung by the secondary character of Macduff. Of course, it makes sense insofar as Macduff turns out to be the real hero of the play (and opera) when he strikes the fatal blow to Macbeth. On Monday night, we were treated to an unabashedly heart-felt rendition of it, courtesy of American young tenor Dimitri Pittas. As Macbeth’s former comrade, Austrian bass Günther Groissböck was also an appealing Banquo, the man that will not go away.
The Met’s chorus has constantly proven to be a musical force to be reckoned with, and this Macbeth gave them yet another chance to display their seemingly endless talents. Whether hauntingly appalled by the horrific murder, increasingly puzzled by Macbeth’s erratic behavior or hauntingly mourning their distressed fatherland, they always managed to set the pitch-perfect mood and fill in the opera house with their gorgeous sounds. Even if I’ve never been a fan of replacing the three witches by a three-part chorus, I was thrilled by the additional opportunity to hear this outstanding ensemble.
Shakespeare’s works are so universal that they can be set in any period of time and still profoundly resonate with the audience. This decidedly modern, militarist-looking production was in a mixed bag. Bleak tree silhouettes, imposing fascist columns, stylish aristocratic chandeliers and a high-tech crystal ball in which Banquo’s descendants appear were some of the sets’ memorable touches. The costumes were as impeccable as usual, especially in the ballroom scene where the Scottish 1% seemed to have come straight out of a French fashion magazine.
Unlike what could be legitimately expected from a Verdi opera, Macbeth does not offer much in terms of vibrant melodies. Instead, it emphasizes the ugliness of the whole story with suspenseful, imperious, somber, but never pretty, music. Beside Macduff’s famous aria, arresting solos abound throughout the opera, with the vast majority attributed to the scheming couple. The “deed is done” scene was certainly the one that caught everybody’s attention, in all its breathy, macabre tension. Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking episode and Macbeth’s last moments were also two high points that lingered for a while. On the podium, Gianandrea Noseda kept a brisk pace and brought out the best of Verdi’s evocative score. The Scottish opera lives on and well.

One down. Three to go.

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