Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Producer/Director: Adrian Noble
Lady Macbeth: Anna Netrebko
Macbeth: Zeljko Lucic
Banquo: René Pape
McDuff: Joseph Calleja
Some traditions die hard, others do not even really die. A case in point would be that this year Anna Netrebko, by now the Met's most bankable star, was not part of its opening night performance after doing the honor three years in a row (Needless to say, having maestro Levine conduct Mozart's sparkling Le Nozze di Figaro instead was nothing to sneeze at). But that did not stop the opera superstar from becoming the talk of opera lovers in New York City two days later, when she debuted her eagerly awaited Lady Macbeth to much acclaim. So there.
The combination of Shakespeare and Verdi is of course a very enticing proposal to begin with, and the added bonus of a dream cast only contributed to make this revival production of Verdi's Macbeth one of the major cultural events of the fall in the Big Apple... and the perfect production for my return to the Met, where yesterday afternoon I giddily walked up the red carpet-covered stairs for the first time this season to take my seat in a packed to the brim opera house. There was no doubt about it: After all the drama and uncertainty of this past summer, the Met was back in exciting business... and so was I.
The good thing about operas based on classics of literature is that there is no need to make an extra effort to figure out the story, which helps keep the focus on the singing. Faithfully following Shakespeare's original plot, Verdi's Macbeth is blissfully lean and tight, the absence of pretty melodies but abundance of psychological insights emphasizing the play's dark and implacable nature.
Moreover, like in the original drama, the opera's main character is cleverly not the title role, but his power-thirsty wife, who will stop at nothing to get her way.
When this demanding but mesmerizing part is held by the world's most popular soprano, the public is bound to take notice, and it has been doing just that. Decisively driving the final nail in a coffin full on the "inas" she had been rather inexplicably stuck with for a while, resolutely stepping away from sweet Juliet, Mimi and Tatiana, Anna Netrebko has at last given herself the opportunity to voraciously bite into a deliciously meaty role, and she is by all accounts clearly relishing every single juicy bite of it.
Her naturally gorgeous voice and fiercely intense singing effortlessly filling up the cavernous house, her unmistakable presence taking command of the stage every time she appeared, admittedly lacking in subtlety but never short of charisma, she was a Lady Macbeth you definitely did not want to cross. So I barely dare to say that the blond wig should probably go, because the fact of the matter is, the icy blonde look does not fit this fiery Lady Macbeth and never will.
Next to Hurricane Anna, Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic managed to somehow hold his own in a role that has fundamentally less dramatic oomph, Macbeth being after all not much more than a puppet at the service of his wife's unstoppable ambition. His singing was poised and elegant, with just enough detachment to express how overwhelmed he was slowly becoming. His duos with his lady brought out the best of him, as if his singing partner fired him up as much as the ever ruthless lady fired up her increasingly hapless husband.
The cast was impeccably completed with two of The Met's most compelling stars in German bass René Pape as Banquo, whose burnished tone gave a quiet dignity to the well-meaning and ill-fated lord, and Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Mcduff, whose turns were as short as memorable, one of them featuring the opera's big hit "O figli! O figli miei", which he delivered with delicate sensitiveness and heart-breaking anguish. My only quibble: So much talent, so little time.
The Met chorus remained busy in various combinations during the whole performance and was as excellent as usual. From witches to aristocrats, from soldiers to refugees, they often played key parts in the proceedings and provided unwavering background support when needed.
If the singing should be, and has been, uniformly praised, I did not think that the production, which set the narrative in a vague post-World War II period, was a complete winner. I am all for playing around with time periods when appropriate, and the universal themes of Macbeth certainly allow for that kind of liberty, but the new vision has to be imaginative and confident.
Granted, this production had a lot going for it: The stark woods and grim palaces efficiently emphasized the gloomy mood of the story, and the discreetly glitzy ball added just the right touch of macabre glamour. However, I found other choices, such as the witches looking like a bunch of housewives waiving purses, the huge crystal ball coming up from the ground on a bed of smoke and the figure-filled golden circles hanging up in the air, puzzling, unnecessary or distracting.
The score, on the other hand, is as viscerally gripping as the action, even if for the most part it does not have the vibrant lyricism often associated with Verdi's œuvre. For the occasion, the Italian master had rightly decided to leave pure musical delights mostly behind and focus on the emotional complexity of the characters instead. Therefore, musicians and singers are still given plenty of unquestionably daunting but deeply rewarding challenges to contend with, from technically difficult arias to ever-changing orchestrations, and when those are so expertly handled as they were yesterday afternoon, the operatic experience is truly grand.
The Met orchestra, one of the surest values of the New York City music scene, gave a powerfully dramatic, beautifully nuanced performance under the detailed baton of Fabio Luisi, one of its most regular conductors. The sweeping quality of Verdi's music was on full display, yet the intimate moments came through with much force as well, reinforcing the already palpable notion of pure musical nirvana. It was good to be back indeed.