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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Macbeth (1864 version)
Željko Lučić (baritone) – Macbeth
Maria Guleghina (soprano) – Lady Macbeth
John Relyea (bass) – Banquo
Dimitri Pittas (tenor) – Macduff
Russell Thomas (tenor) - Malcolm
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Children’s Chorus/James Levine
Adrian Noble (producer)
rec. live, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 12 January 2008
Originally transmitted live to cinemas
Region Code: 0, Aspect Ration 16:9, LPCM Stereo and DTS 5.1 Surround
Experience Classicsonline

The Met’s new Macbeth arrives on DVD in good picture and super sound.  The results are mixed, though, and your response to it will broadly depend on what you’re looking for in this work.

Verdi was famously devoted to Shakespeare.  He called Macbeth one of the greatest works of man, and he was deeply offended when he was accused of not knowing Shakespeare.  As if to give him a worthy interpreter, the Met commissioned Adrian Noble, former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, to direct this new production.  In an interesting, though brief, interview Noble suggests that Shakespeare would have been delighted with Verdi’s interpretation of the play because of the insights Verdi brings.  He updates the setting to the twentieth century so as to stress the universality of the Macbeths’ fall: like many rulers they are viewed as heroes at the outset but by their demise they have destroyed their country and people.  Noble doesn’t really seem to have anything new to say, though: he goes for effects rather than insights.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I expected more from a director of Noble’s stature. 

Act 1 opens on a truly blasted heath.  The floor resembles a cracked mirror, while the background is made up of stark black trees, like a Friedrich painting.  Noble demystifies his witches by depicting them like a demented Women’s Institute; part bag-ladies, part bored housewives.  Their ceremonies aren’t especially chilling, but the sheer quantity of the players certainly packs a punch.  Macbeth and Banquo enter as guerrillas having successfully crushed an uprising, and the soldiers who greet them with the news of Macbeth’s promotion wield machine guns.  The Scotland of Noble’s vision could be any modern dictatorship: the opening of Act 4 shows refugees crouched under the snow, huddling next to a jeep which will be driven by Macduff and Malcolm.  It’s fine as a concept; it doesn’t have an awful lot to say, however, and it doesn’t illuminate much of the action.  The most successful scene of all is in fact the one which gets furthest from this setting.  Noble creates a genuine claustrophobia for Duncan’s murder as a set of tall monolithic columns close in on Macbeth, mirroring the prison within his mind as he takes the fatal decision to kill the king.  When he emerges with bloodied hands a lone spotlight descends to highlight his guilt and his remorse, an effect echoed during the sleepwalking scene.  Then when Duncan’s murder is discovered we see the King’s body on a white sheet stained in blood.  This simple touch makes the end of Act 1 very effective, and from the looks they exchange it is clear that Banquo knows that Macbeth is the killer.  Throughout this scene, as in the rest of the opera, the action is driven by the crackling sexual chemistry between Macbeth and his wife, something Noble is keen to point up. 

The large-scale drama of the apparition scene works well, with a set of holographic projections taking the place of the cauldron.  A set of crowned statues descend to evoke the line of Banquo’s descendants, while Banquo himself comes onstage with a jagged mirror. 

Other parts of Noble’s staging are less effective, however.  There is too much reliance on flag-waving in the big scenes of Act 4, and the witches in the apparition scene are given very little to do so the scene appears quite static, in spite of the busily demonic music that Verdi provides.  A strange pantomime precedes Lady Macbeth’s appearance in the sleepwalking scene, distracting from the melancholy scene-setting of the orchestral prelude, though the aria itself is choreographed with fitting simplicity.  The biggest clanger of all, however, happens in the closing seconds.  As the chorus finish their hymn of victory and the orchestra sails into the home straight, Fleance, Banquo’s son, reappears.  It’s obviously Noble trying to hint at future strife; after all the witches had predicted that Banquo’s – not Duncan’s – heirs should be king.  But it’s completely misjudged and absolutely out of keeping with the triumphal mood of the final bars.  The boy comes on stage and looks (daftly) out at the audience while Macduff and Malcolm try to appear shocked but end up looking absurd.  It’s a risible conclusion which spoilt my recollection of previous scenes, and someone of Noble’s standing should have known better. 

The singing is broadly good, with one important exception.  Željko Lučić is a young, vibrant Macbeth.  The focus of his acting and his singing is to evoke our sympathy for a noble soul who becomes corrupted, and he’s broadly successful, though his final aria just seems a bit pathetic.  His virile baritone is well contrasted with the cavernous bass of John Relyea who is the most exciting vocal presence here.  His Banquo sounds truly momentous and his big voice almost goes too far in dominating the scenes in which he appears.  His Act 2 aria is superb, perfect breath and note control in every range, and his acting as the ghost is truly unnerving.   Dimitri Pittas is a serviceable Macduff.  His Act 4 aria sounds a bit thin at the start and, while he gains heft, his interpretation is rather one-dimensional.  Russell Thomas’ Malcolm has similar problems, but that doesn’t stop La Patria tradita from being tremendous fun. 

The weak link, however, is Maria Guleghina’s Lady Macbeth.  She has good stage presence and her big voice has an undeniable power: her first sung line after the letter-reading really takes one aback.  The top of her range is markedly insecure, however, to an extent that one cannot ignore.  Worse, her tuning is often out.  Her first act arias showcase this uncomfortably: the coloratura of Or tutti sorgete requires a lightness of touch that she does not have, and the end of both arias feels like an uncomfortable bellow.  She is better in the sleepwalking episode, but the top note at the end of the scene is awkward, to put it politely. 

The Met Chorus sing with typical vigour, whether they are being witches, soldiers, party guests or refugees, and Levine keeps a tight control over a score he obviously loves.  The orchestra are their usual impeccable selves, and the acoustic effects of the various scenes sound great in DTS 5.1.  The extra documentaries are good fun, but they’re not enough to give the set a competitive advantage. 

So there’s a lot to enjoy here, but I still felt a little disappointed at how much better this performance really should have been.  With stronger casting and the tweaking of a few scenes, this could well have been a top contender.

Simon Thompson


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