Thursday, November 1, 2007

More Shakespeare than Verdi

composed by Giuseppe Verdi
directed by Adrian Noble
conducted by James Levine
Performances October 22-November 3, 2007, January 5-15 & May 9-17, 2008

The Metropolitan Opera
West 63rd St. and Broadway

Zeljko Lucic as Macbeth

Adrian Noble has a lot of experience directing Shakespeare, spending two decades with the Royal Shakespeare Company. So it’s unsurprising that, a few unwelcome infelicities aside, his staging of Verdi’s Macbeth at the Met is expertly done, vital and, ultimately, tragic.

One wishes, however, that the composer was up to the task. Verdi’s Macbeth was the first in his trio of Shakespearean operas: whereas Otello and Falstaff–his final two masterpieces—were set to elegant libretti by Arrito Boito which seem to stir Verdi to his greatest and most passionate musical heights, Macbeth is not only hampered by Francesco Maria Piave’s clumsy book, but also by Verdi’s own music; written relatively early in career (it premiered in 1847, but was rewritten for its 1865 Paris premiere), Macbeth includes the requisite Verdian choruses and intensely dramatic arias, but they never stir the soul as do later Verdi works.

The climax of Act II–Shakespeare’s famous banquet scene, when Macbeth is haunted by the ghost of Banquo–arrives in a blaze of choral glory, yet the repetitive music mitigates against the grand climax Verdi obviously intended. Likewise, the opera’s coda–the new king is hailed after Macbeth’s death–lacks the stirring music Verdi summons seemingly at will late in his career, particularly the subtle, refined scoring of Otello and Falstaff.

That said, the Met’s new Macbeth pretty much erases bad memories of the flimsy-looking staging and surprisingly indifferent music-making by the Kirov Opera in its 2003 visit. James Levine conducts the excellent Met Orchestra in a rousing version of Verdi’s score, sounding less moribund than Valery Gergiev and the Kirov made it seem, and the Met Chorus is in top-notch form throughout the opera: the women of the chorus get to strut their stuff as the “weird sisters.”

The singing also could scarcely be bettered. Baritone John Relyea is a formidable Banquo and tenor Dimitri Pittas a persuasive Macduff. Then there are the leads, the most important weapons for a second-rate opera like this, and the Met has a superb Thane and his wife.

Ukrainian soprano Maria Guleghina, always an exceptional interpreter of intensely dramatic roles–her performance in Puccini’s Il Tabarro last spring was among that production’s many highlights–plays Lady Macbeth to the hilt right from her first scene, as she reads the letter from her husband about the witches’ predictions and begins planning an ambitious and murderous course. She is in strong voice throughout—although with admittedly shrill patches—which lends Verdi’s arias a gravitas that’s unsupported by the music, and her mad scene, inventively staged by Noble, is the evening’s most memorable.

Serbian baritone Ċ½eljko Lucic’s Macbeth is an equally powerful creation: he makes the Thane into a believably ambitious man who needs persuading from his wife to commit these horrific acts for personal gain. Once again, Verdi’s arias for his character lack true heft, but Lucic is able to transform these moments into deeply motivated, unsurpassably tragic drama.

Noble, set and costume designer Mark Thompson and lighting designer Jean Kalman are in their element with the dark, foreboding settings of Macbeth. With a couple of notable missteps–the chorus of witches dressed as a group of hausfraus on their daily walk to the market, and the too jarringly contemporary appearance of an army jeep at Birnam Wood–Noble has directed a thrilling version of Shakespeare by way of Verdi, in the process demonstrating a true theatrical talent that’s rarely seen on the Met stage.

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