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Macbeth

Giuseppe Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave
The Metropolitan Opera House, New York
(2007)

Zeljko Lucic as Macbeth

This year marks the 160th anniversary of Verdi's first attempt to set Shakespeare to music. In 1847 at the time of the Risorgimento, Italy is marching towards liberation and unification. Macbeth the tyrant is chosen to reflect the political reality echoed in Act IV by the chorus in La patria tradita (our betrayed fatherland).

The Met celebrates the anniversary with tremendous gusto which is generated and inspired by the performance of some of the cast and orchestra conducted by the Met's Maestro, James Levine.

Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, with interventions by Andrea Maffei, created this opera in four acts, which, though uneven, is compelling and timely. It gives a lesson in the dynamics of temptation and manipulation. The score features little of the composer's mature melodramatic and tuneful signature notes, in contrast to his Otello and Falstaff which are among the greatest masterpieces of his later period. However, this production manages to fuse much of the dramatic with the operatic elements, thereby achieving some inspiring scenes.

The Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic, in the title role, displayed a memorable dramatic and vocal performance of an introspective Macbeth. His voice richly conveyed the despair and anguish of a villain with a conscience. His will is at the mercy of the witches' prophecy and his wife's unquenched desire to fulfil that prophecy. It is only in two brief arias at the end of the opera that Macbeth's own will manifests itself. When he realises events are closing in on him, his aria Pietà, rispetto, amore (Mercy, respect, love) in Act IV, Scene 5, moves and even evokes some empathy. Macbeth, once the brave and loyal general, is goaded by his wife, Lady Macbeth, to commit murder. She is the main villain, whom Verdi likened to a witch.

The Russian soprano, Maria Guleghina, fitted, in part, Verdi's bill "I would have Lady Macbeth ugly and wicked ... her voice should be that of a devil". Guleghina is not ugly and God knows how the devil sounds. Verdi's Lady Macbeth is the witches' prophecy's executioner : hence his insistence that the role should be taken by a singer of deformed even ugly tonal quality. Guleghina's singing delivers in parts that, at once, silvery yet ugly quality, ranging from a rough to a stifled tone. However, what should have been a pivotal aria in the sleepwalking scene was rather flat and Guleghina's voice struggled to deliver the D flat required of the score. Her dramatic performance, on the other hand, was impressive. Her role as a wicked and ambitious manipulator generates the requisite emotions of distaste and abhorrence that trigger in the listener an instinctive recoil reaction from her and her crowned husband.

John Relyea in the supporting role of Banquo is a singer rather than an actor. He struck an impressive timbre in Come dal ciel precipita when faced with Macbeth's assassins.

Tenor Dimitri Pittas, as Macduff, delivered a moving Ah, la paterno mano. The notes roll with strong metallic ring touching the core of the personal loss of his wife and children in the hands of Macbeth's assassin.

Verdi's witches are expanded into three groups of women. Adrian Noble, the ex-Royal Shakespeare Company Artistic Director, welds these groups into one chorus, and equips each woman with a handbag. The mischievous ladies use their handbags as a device which is both amusing and sinister in that when the bags are opened, a light is projected onto the faces, creating a spectral effect. The singing of the chorus, under the leadership of Donald Polumbo, is quite outstanding.

For the setting of this production, Noble has chosen Scotland post World War II and some of the soldiers are equipped with machine guns. Mark Thompson, the set and costume designer, has conjured up an almost surreal woodland befitting the unfolding drama.

The Metropolitan Opera House ambiance serves as a splendid theatrical and musical experience, not to be missed at any cost.

Reviewer: Rivka Jacobson