Review: The Met’s memorable ‘Macbeth’ at the movies, live in HD

Review: The Met’s memorable ‘Macbeth’ at the movies, live in HD

Scene from Macbeth (Verdi)
Anna Netrebko as Lady Macbeth, René Pape as Banquo's ghost, and Željko Lučić in the title role of Verdi's Macbeth. (Credit: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

WASHINGTON, October 13, 2014 – The Metropolitan Opera opened its 2014-2015 live broadcast season with a memorable production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Macbeth.” Broadcast live to movie theaters across the country from the Lincoln Center this past Saturday, the performance was recorded and will be repeated at most of these same theaters on Wednesday evening, October 15.

The current Met production strikes an odd balance between an excellent cast of singers and British director Adrian Noble’s somewhat eccentric production, last seen at the Met in 2007. It’s another of these Euro-gray productions we tend to detest, although Euro-gray seems somehow more appropriate for this musical version of Shakespeare’s gloomy, atmospheric play, set as it is in the wilds of Scotland in its distant, often brutal past.

The setting seems authentic enough. But the costuming and the stage trappings move it ahead to vaguely place the action sometime in the 20th century, tilting, perhaps, to a time around the Second World War, given the guns and the Jeep that appear on stage—a bit different from the weaponry available in ancient Scotland.

We’ve seen this sort of thing before, and have mixed feelings about it. But the directorial concept is ultimately valid. Mr. Noble—who returned to the Met to direct this revival of his original—validly re-imagines Shakespeare’s famous tragedy in precisely the way Verdi did, seeing within it a powerful metaphor for our own times, fraught as they are with the rise of charismatic leaders who later betray their supporters and their country in their ruthless rise to power.

But the main reason Mr. Noble’s ideas work in this current production is that the Met has taken on board a quartet of brilliant singers who make an extraordinary and impressive effort to bring the opera’s characters alive both as actors and as vocalists.

Baritone Željko Lučić, who sang the role of Macbeth in the Met’s 2007 production, reprises the role here in 2014. Adding both power and uncertainty to his characterization of this brave yet cowardly Scottish king, his vocal attack radiates robustness and leadership in the early innings, but gradually gives way to fear and self-loathing as Macbeth digs himself further and further into a dilemma from which there is no earthly return.

Better yet, the role of his power-mad spouse, the scheming Lady Macbeth, is sung, essentially for the very first time, by popular Russian soprano Anna Netrebko.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
Lady M (Anna Netrebko) clarifies what she expects from Macbeth (Željko Lučić) in Met performance of Verdi’s “Macbeth.” (Credit: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

While Lady Macbeth may be new to Ms. Netrebko, however, you’d never know it unless you were told. Her voice crackles with energy and determination from her first entrance in Act I, and provides the driving force that impels her hesitant husband to do what’s necessary to take over the Scottish throne.

Her interpretation of Lady Macbeth provides more than ample evidence that she’s ready, willing and able to step into the bigger-than-life roles that characterize the grandest of grand operas. Her stunning, bristling, authoritative performance here is a real revelation, providing much of the color and the energy that drive’s this production’s success.

Yet we also get to glimpse Lady Macbeth’s more vulnerable side as well during Ms. Netrebko’s touching, emotional interpretation of her character’s famous “mad scene.” Ms. Netrebko provides a different take on this scene, presenting a shattered Lady Macbeth who sees her carefully constructed world collapsing around her, reacting less as a madwoman than as a self-defeated and fading Queen drained of her last bits of courage and energy as her warlike spirit gradually deserts her.

Two other singers also turn in splendid performances. Although both Shakespeare’s and Verdi’s Banquos make an early, tragic exit, this character becomes a key emotional indicator as to where Macbeth’s rule will ultimately take us. In a very short period of time, bass René Pape gives us a noble, courageous Banquo whose brutal dispatch and later ghostly presence rightly haunt Macbeth, driving his guilt to the point of madness and incoherence.

Birnam Wood is moving.
Birnam Wood is on the move as Macduff and Malcolm attack. (Credit: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

Coming into his own later in the opera, tenor Joseph Calleja’s Macduff is at once a heroic and a tragic figure. He alone remains from the beginning of the opera to right Macbeth’s wrongs and avenge the deaths of Banquo and of his own family at the hands of the tyrant, expressing both moods in a sweet but magnificent tenor that delivers the goods and holds its own with his three marvelous co-leads.

The Met’s chief guest conductor, Fabio Luisi, leads the Met orchestra crisply and well in a viscerally exciting performance that literally leaps off the stage. The work of the chorus is excellent as well, making this as well-rounded and compelling production of “Macbeth” as you’re likely to get.

Our major misgiving involves the director’s concept of “Macbeth’s” “weird sisters,” who, in the opera, are conveyed by the female chorus. In this production, they’re dressed as a ragtag army of bag ladies carrying purses that, from time to time, open to reveal hidden uplights, the better to make their faces look Halloween spooky. They look silly instead. It just doesn’t work, at least for this writer.

That said, the Met’s season-opening production of “Macbeth” in HD proves a stirring way to kick off its new season. Making things even better are the backstage interviews and intermission features hosted this time by feisty Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, who so impressed us in last year’s Met production of Borodin’s “Prince Igor.”

On hand to star in the title role of the Met’s coming “Carmen” (which will also be simulcast in HD), the energetic Ms. Rachvelishvili proves a delightful host, and will no doubt turn in a distinctively different take on Bizet’s classic ur-feminist heroine.

As we’ve noted, “Macbeth” (running time approximately 3 hours and 15 minutes including intermission) will be repeated on Wednesday evening, October 15, at 6:30 p.m. local time.

Visit the Met’s website for ticket prices and to access lists of local participating theaters near you. Next up: The Met’s “Marriage of Figaro” live in HD, coming up this Saturday, October 18, at 12:55 p.m., starring Marlis Petersen, Isabel Leonard, and Ildar Abdrazakov. Again, check the link above for details and tickets.

Rating: *** ½ (3 ½ out of 4 stars)

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17