Opera Review: Macbeth at the Metropolitan Opera
(Photos by Ken Howard; doctoring by C.C.)
It cannot be that difficult to stage a good opera. I’m not talking about that rare, blow-your-mind, if-only-you-had-been-lucky-enough-to-see production that comes around every so often. (I count The Met’s Jenufa of a few years back, starring Karita Matilla, as one of those.) I’m just talking about a no-fuss, straight forward rendition of an opera that should really take care of itself. It’s not that hard. So why then, should the The Metropolitan Opera, with the vast resources it has, be unable to come up with a watchable version of Verdi’s Macbeth? This, The Met’s second touted “new production” of the season, is encumbered by so many problems, that it should be scrapped altogether. I would recommend to the Met execs to forget about the production–I mean, pretend it never happened–but that would inhibit them from learning from their mistakes. And this Macbeth–directed forcibly by Adrian Noble–is a huge one.
The set and costume conceits, both credited to Mark Thomspon, are so unrelated that you had to have thought they were conceived by two entirely different people. Heavy black columns that were to appear as overblown tree trunks were subdivided with bands of brash florescent light, and these moved lumberingly around the stage to little effect. The backstage was filled up by a grove of barren trees–Birnam Wood–that ended abruptly to support a sort of reverse proscenium that dipped from the huge downstage pillars to the back of the stage, creating a kind of diorama effect. It was all just black and gray and blah, and looked like it had come straight out of a furniture showroom from 1983.
How then, was this supposed to make any sense with the choice of costumes, which, for the women’s chorus, was to dress them up like street urchins from Annie. So, what? We’re in the 1920s? They each had a purse that they were directed to clutch as if their careers depended on it, and beneath the raggedy coats and skirts, their legs were bare, save white socks that sagged pauperishly into a pair of black character shoes. And to contrast this, the men, all military and guerilla, looked as if they had stepped out of some crazy McGuyver episode, wearing black pants, Doc Martins, black leather jackets, wife beaters, in one scene berets, and packing a variety of machine gunnery, sometime an AK-47, other times a single-shot rifle with a bayonet. The whole thing was a menagerie of crap. And I haven’t even mentioned the hologram globe, the misting trees, or the laser-light show.
And by the way, WTF did the William Wegman print ad campaign have ANYTHING to do with what transpired–or rather, misfired–on stage? Although, after seeing the performance, you might have assumed that casting the opera with a pack of Weimaraners would have been more successful than the disparate assortment of human talent they settled for.
For starters: Zeljko Lucic as Macbeth. How did this man get cast? His vocal performance was seriously under pitch from beginning to end. The only moments he managed to really get on top of the notes were when he pushed hard and overblew, creating a tone that could best be described as a braying wildebeest (I would imagine). Lucic has a horn of an instrument, and that’s an insult to the horn section. And he was directed with such lackluster, that there was little to characterize Macbeth other than the awful singing–I mean, truly painful. In the unaccompanied quartet that ends Act I, Lucic’s pitching intonation made Verdi’s careful harmonies sound like more like a Gesualdo motet. It was a mess.
At least Maria Guleghina showed up to overpower everyone on stage with her enormous instrument and tremendous talent. Her tone is woody and vibrant–the kind you can feel in your chest. And her facility at the gymnastic runs Verdi wrote for Lady Macbeth was surprisingly agile. But there were limitations to her voice–she mainly sang at mezzo-piano or forte, with few dynamic options in between–which kept her from delivering a truly moving performance. She was also directed awkwardly. At one point in her first aria, she executes a roll downstage as if you could hear her thinking, And now I’m supposed to roll downstage. And one of her costumes, a reddish, strapless (but sleeved) evening dress, accentuated, rather than accommodated, the set of linebacker shoulders Guleghina has been blessed with. There was, however, a lot of cleavage going on, which is always fun to see at the opera.
At least tenor
Russell Thomas Dmitri Pittas as Duncan Macduff  and Bass John Relye as Banquo (who also appeared this season as Raimondo in Lucia) brought some consistent voice to the production. Relye’s “Come dal ciel precipita” was well sung. And Thomas’ Pittas’ single aria was certainly a shining moment, but too little too late to salvage this money pit.
But the pinnacle of the evening, the absolute brightest moment of the night, was…the male chorus in Act II! They were together, first of all. And they executed the crisp rhythms sharply, and kept in perfect intonation even though they were only being accompanied by the timpani. Bravi, gentlemen. You’ve set a high bar for this production.
The orchestra played quite well. But then, that’s the very least we should expect from James Levine. I’m beginning to wonder what little we should expect from Peter Gelb.
“Macbeth” play Wednesday night and November 1. A new cast will take up the production in the spring.
Here’s T-Bone’s review in The Times. He’s way too kind about the sets and Lucic’s voice. But he’s spot on about Lady M.’s rhythmic carelessness.
And here’s Steve Smith’s reaction on the TONY Blog. He’s also too kind about the sets (and thanks for reminding us about the cheesy “flashlights”). And I wish I could have heard the same performance these boys did, cuz Lucic was crazy flat and wobbly when I went. What gives, gentlemen?