The gold standard.
In Adrian Noble’s 2007 staging of Verdi’s Macbeth
, revived Thursday evening at the Metropolitan Opera
, most everyone on stage applauds throughout King Duncan’s mimed scene, preventing the audience from hearing the band music that welcomes the monarch to Macbeth’s castle and ushers him to his death.
It was an indefensible mutilation of Verdi’s cannily wrought score. Like Shakespeare’s play, Verdi’s opera derives much of its power from contrasts in tone and tension. Would-be sophisticates heap scorn upon that jolly march, but Gabriele Baldini, a keen Verdian and a Shakespearean scholar, grasped its purpose. He deemed it “delightful” and wrote:
According to the stage directions this is “rustic music,” a discreet, almost soothing little fanfare whose elegant proportions and extraordinary freshness seem for a moment to throw open the window and direct a clear sky onto the enclosed, fearfully expectant, morbid atmosphere which is developing. This causes the sense of loss and nostalgia to become all the more evident. It is one of the opera’s gems, but to understand it requires either a purity of heart or an extraordinary, almost perverse refinement. It is wasted on listeners accustomed to middle-class cultural values.
That grave flaw aside, Noble’s production has its merits and seems less fussy now than during its premiere season. Mark Thompson’s set, lit by Jean Kalman, shows claustrophobic interiors swallowed up by darkness and a land scorched and ravaged by war. The sky glowers in livid purples and blues that fade into a rosy dawn when the tyrant Macbeth is dispatched. The witches, misfit housewives à la Diane Arbus, are transformed into bereft mothers and widows who lament Scotland’s woes and, at opera’s end, glory in its freedom. Telling details abound: the witches scatter at the end of the first scene to reveal Lady Macbeth already among them; Malcolm vows to fight on behalf of his oppressed countrymen while cradling a slaughtered child in his arms.
Musically, the performance is uneven, with Dimitri Pittas as Macduff and Günther Groissböck as Banquo delivering the most consistently strong singing. Tall, with beautiful, expressive hands, Groissböck has a cultivated, ebony-colored voice and articulates the text with real bite—and a heavy German accent. Along with clear enunciation, Verdi wrote that “fire, spirit, vigor, and enthusiasm” were his sine qua non for performers, and Pittas sang the master’s music accordingly, phrasing with nobility and striking a finely judged balance between polish and abandon.
Alas that the two protagonists did not follow suit. In her company début, Nadja Michael played fast and loose with the words, altering vowels and dropping consonants willy-nilly. Her loud, gratingly bright upper register tends to veer sharp, and her middle and lower ranges are often inaudible. She is unable to trill, execute fioriture cleanly, or spin a fil di voce, skills taken for granted by Verdi and needed by any singer taking on Lady Macbeth—and any singer at all who deserves to be called a musician, for that matter.
(Yes, Verdi wrote that Lady Macbeth should have a “rough, hollow, stifled” voice and not sing at all, but as Julian Budden and John Rosselli noted, this was exaggeration aimed at jolting the prima donnas of his day into greater expressiveness. It was certainly not a license for singers to “scream” and “tear their hair out and shriek as if possessed,” as Verdi would gripe in his later years.)
The highlight of Thomas Hampson’s performance was the beginning of “Pietà, rispetto, amore,” sung with inwardness and a graceful lilt that degenerated into barking at the aria’s climax. Intelligent, never less than fiercely committed, Hampson has every gift that a great Macbeth needs. His brow was tense and haunted even before Duncan’s murder, and he embodied the drama’s fair-is-foul-and-foul-is-fair upending of the cosmic order, seemingly void of life amidst the banquet’s jollity but quick and frantic when engaged with Banquo’s ghost and the witches.
That said, Hampson oversells the text and mangles the vocal line when he tries to mimic the meat-and-potatoes bawling that was so-called Verdi singing half a century ago. He would do well to sing Macbeth in the patrician and musicianly manner that is his own—and, who knows, perhaps Verdi’s, too.
All of Macbeth’s smaller rôles were superbly sung and played by Claudia Waite (the lady-in-waiting), Tyler Simpson (Macbeth’s servant), Richard Cox (Malcolm), Donovan Singletary (a murderer), and Brandon Mayberry (a herald). Raymond Renault as Duncan and young Connell C. Rapavy as Fleance performed their silent parts eloquently.
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus under Donald Palumbo could hardly have sung better in a heartrending “Patria oppressa” and a gorgeously shaded, rhythmically alert performance of the murderers’ chorus. (Baldini again: “Like the banda piece in Act I, [the chorus] is one of those things which we no longer appreciate but which are justified within the musical framework precisely because of their special nature,” when what is required is “some sort of relaxation of tension to prepare for what is to follow.”)
Because I know Gianandrea Noseda and his wife, it’s not right for me to evaluate his conducting. I will note that it is very different from, say, Claudio Abbado’s dreamlike, festering-from-within reading in the famous DG recording, and that a deafening roar from the audience greeted Noseda when he took his bow.
Unless I’m mistaken, the score performed was the 1865 revision without the ballet (and, thank you, without “Mal per me” jammed into the choral finale).