Anna Netrebko, now a dramatic soprano, shines in the Met’s dark and murky ‘Macbeth’
The former lyric soprano holds up well — and survives the intrusive close-up camerawork of the ‘Live in HD’ transmission
Ever since the September 24 opening of the Met’s current production of Verdi’s Macbeth, critics have been pretty much unanimous in their acclaim for Anna Netrebko’s portrayal of the iconic Lady Macbeth. The praise is well deserved, all the more so considering the transformation of vocal timbre she had to undergo to prepare for this role. By the time of Saturday’s Live in HD simulcast, about the only question remaining was how the Russian superstar would withstand the intense scrutiny of the close-up camerawork.
Netrebko, once a lyric soprano embracing bel canto roles, has slowly been shedding her past and adding weight both to body and voice. And while the change has been gradual, it’s clear from this production that the diva has now reinvented herself as a dramatic soprano. Judging from the quality of singing and level of stamina Saturday, I’d say this new voice is here to stay.
“Behind every great man there stands a great woman,” the saying goes, and those familiar with this Shakespeare tragedy are not likely to argue the point. But Netrebko’s Lady Macbeth stands much the taller throughout this reprise of Adrian Noble’s (still-potent) 2007 production — hovering over the hapless Macbeth (Željko Lučić) a good deal of the time, as he cowers at her feet like a trained dog awaiting the next command.
In the end, however, it’s Netrebko’s ferocious display of vocal power, and not the warped power relationship, that tells the story in this Macbeth.
Whatever your opinion as to the relative merits of Peter Gelb’s simulcasts (my circle of friends are pretty much evenly divided), most will agree that viewers of the broadcasts get to see certain aspects of the production not readily available to audiences at the opera house.
Case in point: In Saturday ‘s simulcast, Live in HD Director Gary Halvorson projected close-ups of Netrebko’s eyes, affording viewers a window into her soul. (I saw a fanatical lust for power.) Halvorson projected close-ups of her facial expressions and seductive body movements, offering a revealing view of the femme fatale spinning a deadly web from which there will be no escape. Mostly, though, Halvorson projected close-ups of Netrebko’s cleavage — shot from every possible angle and broadcast across some 2,000 theater screens around the globe. Viewers from 67 countries now know what it means to be in top form in America. (No word yet on whether Gelb plans to simulcast Anna Nicole.)
Though largely gratuitous, this alternate view of Netrebko didn’t bother me as much as the cropping of the chorus scenes, which rendered it difficult to get a visual sense of the large number of singers involved. It’s also maddening to be forced to look only where the camera director allows you to look. We can see the singers in glorious detail, but are not privy to the looks and reactions of characters whom the singers are addressing. It’s as if we’re sitting in the front row of the opera house strapped in a neck brace.
In the title role, Željko Lučić forges a daring but complex character who wildly chases his ambitions but ultimately succumbs to his fears. The uxorious husband follows his wife’s bidding without question, yet appears incapable of enjoying the sexual favors she offers as bait to lure him into action. When he does reach the top, Macbeth can experience neither physical pleasure nor emotional satisfaction afforded by this absolute power. Lučić’s “mad” scene at the banquet, where he begins to mentally unravel in front of his obsequious guests, was a dramatic tour de force.
Though an excellent actor, Lučić fell far short of the other principal singers. His phrases were generally choppy, and his voice, which in all but the loudest sections came across as hoarse, sounded raspy and unfocused. By his final aria, Pietà, rispetto, amore, Lučić sounded clearly fatigued, and pitch began to wobble.
It’s always a pleasure to see and hear the incomparable bass René Pape (Banquo), even if his character does get killed off early in the second act. (Pape returns, in a bloody white shirt, as a ghost — but alas, no more singing.)
Banquo, who along with Macbeth served as King Duncan’s generals before the latter murdered the monarch, enters the forest with his young son and quickly realizes that the band of thugs in the forest (led by Richard Bernstein) have other plans for the pair. Pape delivers his great aria Come dal ciel precipita in a commanding bass, and with deep feeling.
Those looking for a tenor aria in this opera had to wait until the fourth act for Macduff to step into the spotlight. But Joseph Calleja’s poignant Ah, la paterna mano was well worth the wait. Lamenting the loss of his character’s wife and children at the hands of Macbeth, Calleja’s moving delivery — sung with a combination of tenderness and agony — captured the moment.
Of course, the lion’s share of vocal accolades belong to Netrebko. She was strong in voice from her opening cavatina (Vieni t’affretta) and the concluding cabaletta (Or tutti, sorgete), with a firm upper register that never wavered in pitch or intensity. She navigated the wide intervals in the cheerful Brindisi (drinking song) Si colmi il calice di vino with seemingly little effort, toasting her guests gleefully while savoring the murder of Banquo only moments earlier.
Netrebko’s facial expression in the opera’s signature sleepwalking scene, where Lady Macbeth tries in vain to wash the imaginary blood off her hands, told the story better perhaps than Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto.
Set director Mark Thompson captured the dark and murky underpinnings of the drama through barren staging that provided only hints of the interior of the castle.
The forest scene in Act Four, populated with soldiers and refugees, was far more tangible, including a frozen military jeep with frosted windows and a machine gun mounted on the seat. The falling snowflakes made me reach for my coat. Thompson, also the costume director, outfitted the witches in disheveled 1940s-vintage garb that gave them the appearance of “bag ladies.” Concealed in the women’s handbags were flashlights used in clever fashion to illuminate their faces against the dark backdrop of the stage.
It’s growing increasingly difficult to take shortcuts with the props during simulcasts. Snowflakes falling in the cold and depressing forest had four sides, not six — as was abundantly clear during the close-ups of Calleja, who sang his touching aria sporting three rogue flakes stuck to his hair, each in the shape of a square.
From the foreboding opening Preludio, led by a marvelous brass section punctuated by trombones and bass trombone, the Met Orchestra under Fabio Luisi captured all the right moods at all the right places. Luisi’s invigorating Allegro Brilliante at the close of Act 1 Scene 1 was a real foot-tapper, though taken considerably faster than Verdi’s indicated tempo of half-note = 144 (my metronome clocked the maestro at an astounding 164, which all but set off the smoke detectors in my theater).
Don Palumbo’s men’s and women’s choruses were in good form throughout the production, particularly the chorus of witches. The patriotic Patria Oppressa, where the oppressed masses are lamenting the loss of their homeland, was especially lovely — though the hushed pianissimos appeared amplified out of proportion in the simulcast.
The jury may still be out as to where best to experience the Metropolitan Opera. But for the company’s unforgettable production of Macbeth, at least, there wasn’t a bad seat in the house anywhere in the world.
What: Verdi’s Macbeth, broadcast Live in HD
Who: Metropolitan Opera
When: Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014
Time: Approximately three hours and 15 minutes
Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York
U.S. Encore performance: Wednesday, Oct. 15 at 6:30 local time
Canadian Encore performance: Monday, Nov. 10 at 6:30 p.m. local time