La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Met Opera at the Movies: Macbeth

Last October, the Met unveiled a new production of Verdi's Macbeth to rather mixed reviews. Audience and critics praised the strong musical values, but the modern production didn't sit well with the more tradition-bound segment of the Met audience. Yesterday, the Met at the Movies audience got to decide for themselves. Once again, I saw the show at Sheppard Grande. I am not sure if everything was sold out, but the crowd appeared to be larger than the New Year's Day Hansel und Gretel. As a bonus, the new concessions with a more upscale menu opened just in time for the occasion. Judging by the huge line, it was more appealing to the mature opera audience than pop corn and soft drinks.

One of Verdi's early successes, Macbeth had its premiere in 1847, later revised by the composer in 1865. It is the revised version that is most often heard today. Macbeth is not staged all that frequently today because there simply aren't too many singers who can do it justice. The Met is fortunate to have the services of Russian soprano Maria Guleghina, arguably the reigning Verdian dramatic soprano, as Lady Macbeth. I first heard her in the killer role of Abigaille at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in the 1997-8 season. Now ten years later, she is still on top of her game, a remarkable testament of vocal longevity in this punishing repertoire. She is partnered by Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic, a voice new to me, in the title role. (Italian Lado Ataneli and American Andrea Gruber take over the roles later on in the season)

To the more superstitiously minded, Macbeth is supposed to be cursed. Historically revivals of this opera were reputedly plagued by back luck, accidents, or assorted unexplained happenings. I remember vividly tuning into a Met broadcast of Macbeth around 1986. The second intermission seemed inordinately long. Just when I was wondering what was going on, the announcer Peter Allen said to the radio audience that there had been some sort of accident in the house, but he didn't elaborate, except to say that the singers were fine. I was looking forward to hearing Elizabeth Connell in her Sleeping Walking Scene, but it was not to be. There was no Act Four as the rest of the performance was cancelled. Later I heard that someone in the audience jumped from the balcony to his death.

Thankfully nothing that dramatic happened at the Met yesterday - at least all the drama remained on stage! Top vocal honours went to Maria Guleghina as a fearless Lady Macbeth. She threw herself into the role, giving a vocally and dramatically riveting performance. Her steely soprano certainly had the power and range, and she was in searing voice. She nailed her first two arias - "Vieni t'affretta" and "La luce langue" - as if it was child's play, combining ample dramatic weight with thrilling highnotes. Singing with such vocal force and acting with a surfeit of physical energy, a certain toll was perhaps inevitable. In the later acts, some of her high notes in the ensembles were flat. She tired noticeably by the Sleepwalking Scene - her high D-flat was probably a note she wished she could have back. But the audience loved her anyway and gave her a well deserved ovation at the end.

Given such a powerhouse Lady Macbeth, Zeljko Lucic (MCBETH) was somewhat over-shadowed. But the Serbian was an true Verdi baritone, with a pleasing timbre and a secure top register. He probably got carried away by the heat of the moment and didn't pace himself, tiring and turning raspy and strained at the very end. Canadian bass John Relyea, a stalwart at the Met the last few seasons, was a terrific Banquo. As Macduff, tenor Dimitri Pittas sang with strong, clarion tone. I think Pittas is a student of Bill Neill and the late Dixie Ross Neill. I heard his Rodolfo in a Santa Fe Opera La boheme last summer and was blown away. I would have liked a bit more mezza voce from him, but it is hard to argue with such a great voice.

Now the production. This show demonstrates that even the august, tradition-bound Met is slowly changing. Even a few short season ago, a modern dress production like this one would have been grudgingly accepted in something "far-out" like Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, but it would have been unthinkable in Verdi's Macbeth. To be sure, by Regietheater standards, this Macbeth is really quite mild. Adrian Noble's direction was eccentric but not offensive, and the audience seemed to have accepted it judging by the reaction at the end. The videographic work - all 12 cameras worth - was wonderful as usual. However, I am beginning to think this is a bit of a double-edged sword. Unlike a Romeo et Juliette production populated by beautiful people the likes of Netrebko and Alagna, the extreme closeups of the less photogenic Madame Guleghina straining for a high note didn't have quite the same audience appeal... The Act Three Witches' Gathering would have looked great from the far reaches of the Met auditorium, but the closeups of children repeatedly retching and vomiting into the silver chalice was, shall I say, more than we bargained for. All kidding aside, the best thing about the videography is the scene changes, giving the uninitiated a real taste of the enormous effort it takes to put on a show like this. The musical side of things got a boost from a newly rejuvenated James Levine, leading the superb Met orchestra and chorus in a vital reading of the score. He seems to have recovered from his various ailments the last two seasons, and the orchestra responded beautifully. And I must say the women's choristers, long the Achilles heel of the Met Chorus, is finally sounding less superannuated. I say, bring on Manon Lescaut!

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  • Is there absolutely NO concept of respect for the ART of the libretto? for the responsibility to the essence of the literary source and what inspired the composer to actually write the music? Of course the audience was enthusiastic - who wouldn't be with Verdi's music performed so brilliantly. The average audience member I estimate is relatively passive, and just wants to enjoy the evening, so the enthusiatic bravos will drown out the few who feel passionately about the opera's integrity being placed in jeopardy. This "Macbeth" had no "witches", no king and queen, of course no ballet. The arrogance of mis-guided directors is RUINING the true opera experience globally. There is plenty of room for creativity within the boundaries set by the librettist. Opera companies (directors, board members, conductors, all performers, etc.) have a RESPONSIBILITY to not only perform the music, but to also remain true to the essence of the operas themselves. This production was mild compared to others - but still WRONG. It deeply saddens me to see the greatest art form being corrupted, distorted, and changed with absurd productions. The art form itself is in SERIOUS danger. Those in positions of power, who still actually understand what the opera experience is, MUST stand up and protect its integrity.

    -Sam Lee

    By Blogger Sam Lee, At 24 April 2008 at 06:15  

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