Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Verdi - Macbeth (Metropolitan Opera, 2014 - HD-Live)

Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Metropolitan Opera, New York - 2014

Fabio Luisi, Adrian Noble, Željko Lučić, René Pape, Anna Netrebko, Claudia Waite, Christopher Job, Raymond Renault, Noah Baetge, Joseph Calleja, Moritz Linn, Richard Bernstein, Seth Malkin

The Met Live in HD - 11 October 2014

There's at least one good reason for selecting Macbeth as the opening broadcast in the Met's 2014-15 Live in HD season, as opposed to the actual season opener Le Nozze di Figaro (which will be broadcast later this month). It's become a recent tradition to open the HD broadcasts with the popular attraction of Anna Netrebko, and opera's brightest star - possibly now at the peak of her career - has a new role in her repertoire - Lady Macbeth. That's something worth reviving a readily available production of Macbeth for, and Adrian Noble's 2007 production fits the bill.

Considering the liberties that Verdi and his librettist Piave take with Shakespeare's drama, it probably helps that there's a former RSC director behind the production to anchor it back in Shakespeare's themes. The strength of Noble's Macbeth consequently is its adherence to mood and character, and even if it gives the appearance of modernisation, it remains fairly traditional in its presentation. It's a good half-way house that is typical of the Met, where modernisation is acceptable if it is visually impressive and doesn't go as far as reworking the concept or more deeply exploring the themes of the work in a challenging or revisionist way.

Noble's production seems to borrow something of its mood from Alfred Hitchcock, with Lady Macbeth even transformed here into a Hitchock blonde. There's a sinister quality to Mark Thompson's set and costume designs that makes it a bit 'Dial M for Macbeth', the setting dark, misty and moonlit, the costumes vaguely 1940s. The witches wear granny-coats with handbags (think Monty Python's 'pepperpot' old ladies) and there's a more elegant formal dress of the royal court, most notably in the banquet scene. The military scenes however reflect a more modern image of war, but not too high-tech - the jeeps, combat gear and automatic guns having something of the appearance of the Bosnian war.

It's all very much iconic imagery that has resonance and meaning to a modern audience, without introducing high-technology 'magic' that could distract from the very necessary hands-on nature of mad ambition and the bloody business of murder. Is this a dagger which I see before me? It certainly is. It's not a drone or anything else that is designed to make some modern political point about the morality of killing and war in the present day. That's not what Macbeth is about. Nor is it specifically about national identity. Verdi certainly made something more of the Italian Risorgimento struggle in his opera ('Patria opressa') but there are no such references in this production, and little even that relates it to its Scottish setting. There are no saltires, no tartan or flags, and no attempt to update it to make reference to the recent independence vote in Scotland either.

The generic setting and non-specific period allow the focus to fall back onto the human question of our relationship to power, ambition and murder. Fortunately, although it diverts in some plot developments from Shakespeare's vision, Verdi's writing for Macbeth sees the composer at his most inspired. Macbeth is still a relatively early work in the composer's 'galley years', but the quality of the source material (even in translation) clearly spoke to the composer who would much later revisit his beloved Shakespeare in Otello and Falstaff. The selection of scenes and numbers for Macbeth allow him to align power and melody to new levels of intensity, and to stronger characterisation than is found in those other early Verdi pot-boilers.

Melodically and in the setting of the scenes to standard numbers and arias, the composition of Macbeth is wonderful, but the real quality of the work - particularly in the revised version used here - is in Verdi's writing for the voice. Get a couple of great singers into those roles with a strong chorus and Macbeth can be a thrilling and visceral experience. Željko Lučić and René Pape have a track record with this production at the Met in the roles of Macbeth and Banquo. It's perhaps unfair to merely pass over their performances here as "solid" - Lučić in particular is shaping up to be a great Verdi baritone and doesn't put a foot wrong, hampered only by not very special direction - but when you have the right person in the role this is Lady Macbeth's opera, which that means it's Anna Netrebko's.

Quite simply, Netrebko is phenomenal, singing a challenging role with apparent ease, delivering the signature 'La luce langue' aria with remarkable control and tightly focussed precision. She almost makes it look too easy, and that might be a problem. She has clearly waited for the right time to tackle Macbeth, and has prepared for it well (trying out some arias on CD and a couple of live performances of the role at the Munich festival this summer), but at the same time the performance is almost too cool and studious, and it could do with a little loosening up.

That is perhaps just being too picky about what is by any reasonable consideration an outstanding performance, but there are occasionally flashes that show that Netrebko is capable of bringing much more to the role than the direction really allows. Her Act II banquet brindisi ('Si colmi il calice'), for example, isn't quite so joyful, but shows her growing anger with Macbeth succumbing to his terrifying visions of Banquo's ghost, flashing him furious glances and singing the second verse almost between gritted teeth.  There's a taste of the fire that could underlie the cold, calculated behaviour here, and it's evident in 'La luce langue', but too little of it is seen elsewhere.

The same however could be said of the production as a whole. Some scenes are handled well, while others are rather static, the cast left to stand and sing out to the audience. In addition to the aforementioned banquet scene, where the bloody ghost of René Pape's Banquo makes a great impression, the scene of the King's burial is well staged, the tensions spilling over in such a way that the suspicions of Banquo and Macduff (sung well by Joseph Calleja) can clearly be seen to set them up in opposition to Macbeth.  Fabio Luisi had the measure of the work, finding wonderful character as well as force in the score, and the Met chorus impressed, but in a way that confirmed that the quality of the production lay more in the delivery of the musical performance than in the largely static stage direction.