Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sympathy for Macbeth

Giuseppe Verdi
Met - October 3, 2014

An evening full of sound and fury.
Lei: I saw this production of Macbeth at the Met back in 2012 and liked it well enough (Thomas Hampson was in it after all), but back then I certainly did not come away with any sense of wild exhilaration for either the opera itself or that night’s performance. I did experience such feelings though coming out of this year’s Macbeth, where to me it was evident more than ever that, all other things being equal, an extraordinary cast and a brilliant conductor can really deliver a transformative operatic experience.

The murderous Thane and his bombshell consort
Lui: Rarely do you get such a solid cast in all the principal roles producing such extraordinarily high quality performances across the board at the Met. I hardly ever hear singers who can play the space like an instrument the way both Anna Netrebko and Željko Lučić did tonight. Netrebko was both ethereal and brutally guttural. Her high notes soared through the upper ether of the Metropolitan Opera House, filling it with an almost transcendent beauty, which is ironic that such a wicked woman is able to elicit so many strong feelings of beauty as well as evoke such empathy from the audience in her inevitable fall. This is an element that is generally missing from the Shakespearean source material, where she and her husband are both very difficult to empathize with and feel for as they slowly make their bed and then go on to die in it, individually, separately, alone. Netrebko gave us great visceral depth in her evil scheming. Her Lady Macbeth is a force of the very nature that this production constantly presents on the fringe of all of the sets no matter where the scene is set: always lurking on the edge of court life is the lawless violence of the dark forest, the self-interested propagation of the species inherent in the animal kingdom, the ambitious climbing of the unbridled political arena, and Lady Macbeth is the living embodiment of it. Her striving knows no bounds.

 "The evil deed must be done, the dead don't get to rule."*
Lei: From the very first scene we are introduced to the tension between the realm of primordial nature and that of ordinary human society, when a group of deceptively respectable middle class ladies wearing dark coats and clutching their 1950s purses, come swarming out of the woods onto the barren front of the stage. As soon as they start singing (Che faceste? dite su! / Ho sgozzato un verro. E tu?), it is clear that these are not your ordinary British housewives, not only because they talk about slitting boars’ throats and other grim deeds, but mostly for the way they behave as if possessed by demons, twitching, twirling and swinging their purses (that when opened emanate supernatural lights). Director Adrian Noble’s use of the chorus of witches is brilliant. And unsettling. So the opera begins with a very clear and slightly uncanny note on the fact that the monstrous (witches) can be found in the ordinary (housewives), and we’re off to a good start.

The Weird Sisters and the Banality of Evil.
Lui: Opera is not known for its handling of nuance. Instead it puts the emotions front and center, big emotions expressed through music. Shakespeare’s art is one of nuance. Verdi’s treatment of the play discards many of the subtle details about Macbeth’s indecision to commit the crime of regicide early on. In fact, Verdi’s Sire di Caudore is already self-deluded in the lead up to the murder. He needs no headstrong wife to push him over the brink. The assassination scene begins with a series of instructions for his servant to make his evening drink. He tells him to ring a bell when it is ready (Sappia mia sposa). Once his servant is dismissed, Macbeth goes into a homicidal trance singing Mi s’afficcia un pugnale, the famous “let me clutch thee” scene. Then when the bell rings announcing his night cap he misreads it as the death knell that rings for Duncan. All is decided. It’s time for the king to go. This is opera so there’s no need to dilly dally around.

Shakespearean Noir.
In similar fashion, the end pushes straight through the climax with the portentous advancing of the forest and the belabored point about MacDuff’s cesarean birth in just a few broad musical brushstrokes. Nevertheless, Noble manages to make a few gestures toward the subtleties of plot and character that are inevitably sacrificed in the operatic mode. For example, to hint at the power Lady Macbeth has over her husband, which is less ostensibly a theme in the Verdi score as it stands (the murderous couple are equal accomplices in the crime), Noble places her in the scene of to the side of the stage toward the back beneath one of the hanging lamps so that she glows demonically in the background as Macbeth grapples with his vision of the dagger. It is as though she is something of a supernatural enchanter capable of conjuring this image and dangling the temptation of the murder weapon mysteriously before the eyes of her ambitious husband. Otherwise, in Verdi’s take, Macbeth seems to be just as convinced as his wife is that violently taking the prophecy of the weird sisters into his own hands is the right thing to do. There’s no fussing about it, as there is in the play. But Noble has done a little something remedy that.

The chthonian goddess gets her way.
Lei: Anna Netrebko was superbly dominating, vocally and acting wise. Her Lady Macbeth came across as utterly mean, brutally aggressive, voluptuous and (though in one scene only) heart-breakingly frail. Her sexual power was abundantly clear, as Netrebko made her entrance emerging like a lioness from her bed’s black sheets sporting a platinum blonde wig and a pale grey silk and lace negligee, taking the Met audience by storm from the get go with her Ambizioso spirto tu sei Macbetto. She exuded an evil queen charisma as she crawled towards the audience, paced the stage plotting, and malignantly sneered when singing Compiersi debbe l’opra fatale. / Ai trapassati regnar non cale*, convincing her husband to arrange for the murder of Banquo and his son. Netrebko rendered her fatal donna relationship with Macbeth as abusive but also passionate. Early on she kicks poor kneeling Lučić when he refuses to go back to the scene of Duncan’s murder, and later she is equally quick to ferociously initiate sexual intercourse when he shows determination to destroy any opponent to their power (M: Tutto il sangue si sperda a noi nemico! / Lady M: Or riconosco il tuo coraggio antico)**.

Banquo decides to drop by the party.
Lui: Netrebko’s blonde bombshell representation of Lady Macbeth did much to empower her as an agent in their tragic collective downfall. In that scene where she almost violently sexually assaults her husband, pulling him down on top of her on the floor like a feline beast in heat, she really seems to be taking matters into her own hands. In the HD performance from 2008, Maria Guleghina didn’t always play things quite so aggressively. Netrebko’s more forceful performance suited the role perfectly not to mention her phenomenal singing.

The sleepwalker’s perilous path.
Lei: Her final sleepwalking scene was literally an otherworldly experience, as Lady Macbeth oscillated between intense fury, flashing a pendant ceiling lamp on the public, and ethereal madness delicately walking on chairs (very appropriately moved by the witches). Haters may say that this role is wrong for Netrebko’s voice, but frankly who cares about technicalities or how Lady Macbeth is “supposed to be sung,” all that matters to me is whether character is conveyed effectively and interestingly through voice and acting, in this regard Anna was simply sensational, bringing this Lady Macbeth to life in her own very raging way that will not be forgotten by those lucky enough to see her live.

Sleep No More: Macbeth has killed sleep.
Željko Lučić is the king of Verdian tormented baritones. He hooked me the moment he had me crying like river when I first discovered him in Rigoletto a few years ago and I’ve been a devoted fan ever since. Macbeth is a very demanding and complex role and Lučić, not surprisingly, simply owned it from start to finish. His raging moments were soaring and glorious, but I found more interesting his rendition of arias of more intimate introspection, such as Nel sonno udii che oravano, immediately after Duncan’s murder, as well as when in Act IV Macbeth realizes that his bloody ways won’t make him very popular with posterity (Pietà, rispetto, amore, / conforta ai dì cadenti, / non spargeran d’un fiore / la tua canuta età. / Né sul tuo regio sasso / sperar soavi accenti: / sol la bestemmia, ahi lasso! / la nenia tua sarà)***. Lučić’s rendition of this latter aria was simply heartbreaking (I did cry, again), really showing Verdi’s genius in making the public empathize with a vicious power-obsessed murderer as Macbeth.

He breaks down. She picks up the pieces.
Lui: I feel like tonight we saw Verdi’s Macbeth the way it was intended to be performed. Are we supposed to be moved by his fall? In the Shakespeare maybe not, but here most definitely. Verdi moves us, especially when sung by these two remarkable singers. I was all atingle during the haunting climax of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking aria. Even more so when Lučić’s voice rang out round and honeyed, virtually a cappella, through the house as the Met orchestra slowly and almost imperceptibly diminished to nothing in his final aria: nobody loves him, he’ll die all alone. Throughout this opera Verdi features the human voice raw and crude and often even unaccompanied except for by the occasional orchestral flourish. There is no wall of sound here drowning his singers out but a heightening of the vocal element and a highlighting of the language, the words, the human scale of the tragedy. It was particularly potent as he forced us to emote over Macbeth's final reflective moment.

Macduff lifts the spirits of the people.
Lei: The superstar bass René Pape delivered a solid performance as Banquo, though it was not particularly exhilarating. Joseph Calleja, on the other hand, was a very pleasant surprise as Macduff. I am always on the lookout for manly moving tenors (a rare species unfortunately) and Calleja’s rendition of O figli, o figli miei! was exactly what I always hope to hear from a great tenor. I will now definitely look forward to catching more of this Maltese singer in the future in beefier roles, next will be as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor in the spring.  

Adrian Noble’s production is modern, with costumes and weapons vaguely post-WWII, but sets that are in some way almost atemporal, with an overall darkness of each component that is deceptively simple. The back of the stage is bordered by a spectral wood, the sides by immense dark mobile columns and the black floor is very symbolically cracked. This is the basic framework of the sets that gets scarcely populated with few essential elements throughout the opera: Lady Macbeth’s bed (that doubles over as the scene of King Duncan’s assassination), a bench or a chair (where Macbeth ruminates on his demons), opulent chandeliers (sparkling at the party, abandoned after the Macbeths’ fall) and an army jeep in the refugee scene. The simplicity of the sets really did not require set changes per se but, rather, each scene overflowed into the next one (for example, Lady Macbeth is still sleepwalking and fading towards the darker side of the stage when the chorus of Macbeth’s men enters the scene), with a fluid spectral tableaux effect. The use of lighting was also very clever to emphasize crucial dramatic moments: the cracks on the floor lit up like lightning, the slits on the columns reverberated eerily and a simple metal pendant lamp came down from the ceiling ominously to shine on the bloodied hands of the murderous couple, as well as on the imaginary stained hand of Lady Macbeth in her sleepwalking scene, and the first rays of a sunrise glow on the backdrop with a glimmer of possible hope toward the end as a new day finally seems to be dawning.

Lady Macbeth is laid low by her blood guilt.
Lui: While Verdi tells the fall of the criminal couple in the key of profound pathos, he also slightly tweaks his Shakespearean source material not only by streamlining it but also by adding a few touches of his own. The most conspicuous addition is the refugee scene in the beginning of Act IV. These supplemental choral passages leaves us with a feeling of solidarity and hope. He shows us the suffering of those who have been displaced by the turbulent political times but also the suffering of the tyrants who are floundering under the blood guilt of their treacherous intent. Who are we ultimately supposed to side with? The answer seems clear. Shakespeare doesn’t give us a choice, though his world is a far bleaker one. Verdi, on the other hand, seems to emphasize the humanity of both sides of the tragedy. It is crazy that the oppressor of the patria should be allowed to play on our emotions more vividly than any other figure or group in the opera, especially when sung by world class talent.
The Scottish patria oppressa.
Lei: Verdi’s Macbeth score has it all: demoniac witches, prophecies, battles, refugees commiserating, a father tenderly crying for the death of his family, party drinking songs, folly, loyal soldiers, a scheming evil couple, a murderer’s reflection on why nobody likes him, wild passion, hope for a better future. Maestro Fabio Luisi lead the Met orchestra, chorus (on very heavy duty here) and all the singers brilliantly, really doing justice to Verdi’s genius for what I will remember for a long time as an extraordinary night at the opera. 

Lei & Lui 

The Patria oppressa lifts itself back up.
All photo credits: Marty Sohl/MetOpera

** M: All our enemies' blood will be spilled. / Lady M.: Now I see your old courage again.
*** Mercy, respect, love, / the comfort of declining years, / these will place no flowers / on your old age. / Nor should you hope / for kind words on your royal tomb: / only curses, alas, / will be your funeral hymn.

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