Macbeth Met in HD Review-Packing a Heavy Dramatic Punch

Once a neglected opera, Verdi’s Macbeth is now viewed as a masterpiece, and it, like much of the work of its composer, has found a fervent champion in the Metropolitan Opera of New York, which chose to make its current star-studded production of the opera as its first “Live in HD” transmission of the 2014-15 season.

Anna Netrebko as Lady Macbeth

Like Shakespeare’s play, Verdi’s adaptation of Macbeth is more manic and grandiose in its first half, when the title Thane of Glamis (baritone Želko Lučić) conspires with his Lady (soprano Anna Netrebko) to murder the incumbent Scottish king, Duncan (Raymond Renault, a silent role.) Rather than using the standard three witches, Verdi employs a whole female chorus to stand in for them as they deceive the doomed protagonist. Lady Macbeth’s opening aria is a giddy declaration of her intent to spur her husband on to do the deed, and Malcolm’s murder and Macbeth’s unraveling at a banquet allow for busily populated set pieces, grand opera hallmarks that have always been a favorite at the Met. The opera’s second half is considerably more the even the nobility of the murderous pair, which makes it more contemplative musically but more satisfying than the more flamboyant earlier acts.

Zeljko Lucic and Anna Netrebko

The current production used by the Met was directed by Adrian Noble, who set the production during what would appear to be World War II in Russia, which makes the extravagant black-tie banquet in Act II where Macbeth loses it in front of his court implausible. There are, however, brilliant touches, such as setting Lady Macbeth’s Act IV “mad scene” inside a dark, desolate mental ward, directing Netrebko to walking on chairs blindly that are placed as she walks her path so she doesn’t fall. A more lamentable touch was Sue Lefton’s choreography of the witches chorus, which was silly even by Broadway standards.

Zeljko Lucic as Macbeth (foreground) haunted by Banquo (Rene Pape) with Lady Macbeth (Netrebko) and Met Chorus

Musically, the cast has the star power we’ve come to expect for Met productions. Želko Lučić is now safely ensconced as the Met’s go-to Verdi baritone. His voice is very healthy-sounding, though it’s not quite as powerful as some of the greats as the past. Nevertheless, his performance was a meticulous example of dramatic singing.

Anna Netrebko sings "Mad Scene" in Act IV of Verdi's Macbeth

Of course, Anna Netrebko is going to be the focus of any production she stars in, and the Met’s most-promoted star may have finally found a role that catches up to the hype. Lady Macbeth is not the most demanding vocal role, but Netrebko, more so in the Mad Scene than in her initial aria or the Act II Brindisi, was as captivating as she’s ever been, inspiring rapt silence in the audience as she hit high notes in pianissimo. Of course, she’s so well-loved by the audience (and the publicity department) that her doing anything is going to cause excitement, but she was brilliant at times here.

Joseph Calleja as Macduff

In a touch of double luxury casting, unexpected even for the Met, Rene Pape sang Banquo, a small role that has one moment of glory-a short aria-before he’s knocked off in a brutal stabbing, capped by a throat-slitting that was obviously stagy from the vantage point of the HD cameras but nevertheless very disturbing. If that wasn’t enough, Joseph Calleja, one of the Met’s top tenors, sang the tenor role of Macduff, who gets his own great aria in Act IV but seems small for this star. Perhaps Pape’s and Calleja’s presences could be explained by the fact that they both made their operatic debuts back in the 1990’s in their respective roles here, which allowed them to nostalgically re-live those breakthroughs in front of a worldwide audience. Also deserving of mention is tenor Noah Betege, who sang Malcolm, who unseats Macbeth. Betege appeared alongside in Calleja and yielded nothing to the famous Maltese tenor; he is a singer to watch.

Joseph Calleja as Macduff, Noah Batege as Malcolm, and the Met Chorus in the final scene of Verdi's Macbeth

It’s always a pleasure to see Fabio Luisi leading the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Luisi, in addition to being a singer’s best friend, no exception here, led the always great instrumentalists in his usual energetic style that kept the opera moving along without histrionics.

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