Macbeth, A Triumphant New Take on the Old Scottish Play

By Raymond Beegle
Published: 11/3/2007
Photo credit: Mary Sohl, the Metropolitan Opera

The Metropolitan Opera’s advertisement in Playbill Magazine for their new production of Macbeth reads “…a powerful new staging for Verdi’s sublime Shakespeare adaptation.” From this we gather that the focus is on the production rather than the singing, as well it seemed to be. Can one say that Verdi’s adaptation, or Shakespeare’s play, for that matter, is really something we would call “sublime?” Monumental, shattering, perhaps, but “sublime,” in the dictionary sense of “lofty” or “elevating” it is not. What proved to be sublime indeed was the singing and acting of Željko Lučić in the title role. He at once, through Verdi’s dramatic skill, and his own many-faceted voice, established himself as a sympathetic character, complex, filled with indecision, and doomed by the ambitions of his malevolent wife. Never did Lučić use the opera as a vehicle of vocal display, but conversely he employed his gifts to the service and truth of the music. Surely this is one of the major components of artistic greatness.

Lady Macbeth’s personality is more explicit. She is diabolic, and Verdi’s celebrated views regarding her vocal requirements are very specific; “…I don’t want Lady Macbeth to sing at all...Lady Macbeth’s voice should be hard, stifled and dark.” These remarks would seem to give the singer great latitude, but it is my guess that Verdi would have been skeptical of Maria Gulegina’s efforts. First of all Guleghina still has a marvelously beautiful instrument, and quite often this fact was abundantly clear. Unfortunately when she tried to sound “hard, stifled and dark,” it was clearly by means of vocal abuse, rather than skilled modulation. Her chronic over-singing took its toll as the opera unfolded, and among its unfortunate consequences was her inability to spin the pivotal sotto voce phrase which closes her sleep walking scene. Verdi said that the success of this opera hung on two important numbers. First the duet between Lady Macbeth and her husband, which was wonderfully compelling, and secondly the sleep walking scene which failed to evoke its magic because of the singer’s vocal fatigue. As well, the staging, in which she precariously tiptoes her way across stage upon chairs placed before her one at a time by the witches, posed a glaring distraction. One could not help trying to guess the reason for the chairs. One could not help watching how adroitly they were set down. One could not help wondering if the mad queen might take an accidental fall. By then the finest music of the opera had passed by only half heard.

John Relyea is among the finest bass-baritones on the roster, but he is miscast for the brief part of Banquo. His acting was excellent, his singing and style exemplary, but he does not have the required vocal dimensions. Fortunately he sang very intelligently, aligning himself to the truth of his vocal limits, but one needs a solid fortissimo at the end of his aria, a vital point dramatically, and he could not deliver it. Furthermore the role is written for a bass rather than bass baritone and his timbre worked against the foreboding quality of the aria.

It’s asking a great deal for witches to be scary when they are dressed as housewives of the 1940’s, but by means of lighting, bizarre choreography, and spectacular singing, these ladies in anklets and woolies were scary indeed. Also, the rousing patriotic ensembles, and especially the stunning male chorus of assassins contributed strongly to the success of the evening.

James Levine has delivered his share of perfunctory performances, such as the series of last season’s Zauberflöte’s, but when he is committed he can generate a considerable amount of thunder.  As an early Verdi conductor one could wish that he had more of the old school style and flare of Lamberto Gardelli. In contrast, Levine generally seems to stand aloof from the emotional core of a work, affably and urbanely producing perfectly molded phrases and holding stage and pit together in a comfortable embrace.  Ultimately he lacks the urgency and credibility of his great predecessors. Is this perhaps a matter of Zeitgeist? Would a modern American audience believe the music making of Panizza, or Gardelli, or Toscanini? That is a great question

From a visual standpoint the smoke and dark skies of the sets were quite evocative, but most of the earthly objects seemed a stylistic jumble: The onyx columns, ribbed in sequence with neon bands giving the atmosphere of a trendy Chelsea night spot, a jeep appearing in the last act, and the great green flags that were flourished in the final act seemed to have little relation to each other.

Verdi remarked that Macbeth “…belongs to a genre which usually either goes wonderfully well or perilously” The public saw both aspects in turns, but ultimately this new production proved to be a formidable achievement.