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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Opera Review: Roads to Madness

Željko Lucic and Maria Guleghina as the Macbeths.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2007 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Met's new Macbeth.
With his version of Shakespeare's Macbeth, Verdi managed to break new musical ground in the middle of his difficult "galley years." The result: an opera with two murderously difficult leading roles. On Monday night, the premiere of Adrian Noble's new production featured baritone Željko Lucic and soprano Maria Guleghina as the Macbeths, in one of the most exciting performances of a young opera season.

Mr. Lucic is an imposing figure, with a big swagger in his manner and his voice. As his guilt slowly peels away the shell of his sanity, the performance rises in intensity until it becomes excruciating to watch.  Mr. Lucic's performance encompassed noble, deep notes, white-faced terror and all-out rage and despair, everything that is demanded by Verdi. He moved from high-powered grandstanding to the intimacy of deep dementia.

Maria Guleghina gave a strong performance as Lady Macbeth. She began the Letter Scene in spoken word, floated crazy, dissonant notes in the middle of the Act II brindisi and ranged her formidable instrument all over the stave in her final mad scene, giving an acting performance inspired by sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Barefoot, she walked on a long row of chairs, avoiding stepping on the cracks on the floor of the set. The whole time, she compulsively rubbed her hands.

John Relyea was a fine, resonant Banquo, with rolling deep notes and a warm, fatherly presence. His performance makes one wish that Macbeth's best friend could live a little longer--or at least have some music to sing as a blood-covered ghost! His final aria was magnificently sung, and he gave his murderers a heck of a fight before getting killed.  Finally, the large, burly singer made an imposing, terrifying (albeit silent) ghost in the banquet scene.

Macduff was the tenor Dimitri Pittas. This is a tiny part--one of Verdi's smallest tenor roles. But his Act IV aria was beautifully sung with longing for the character's murdered family. The final stage-fight between him and Macbeth was compelling to watch, bringing the rebellion to an exciting close.

This new production by Adrian Noble emphasizes drama and efficiency over visual splendor. The entire action takes place on a cracked, black obsidian disk, (very New Bayreuth!) with columns at the front and the trees of Birnham Wood toward the back. The trees-to-columns effect leads one to expect these sets (by Mark Thompson, who also designed the company's surreal black-on-black Pique Dame) to be recycled for the Met's next staging of Parsifal. Noble does a good job of coming up with powerful ways to stage the dramatic action of the play, and his inspired singing actors help make the production work.

James Levine conducted with brisk efficiency, letting the formidable Met brass tear into the score, while maintaining the delicate balance between the winds and strings. The Met chorus, whether portraying the Macbeths' party guests, the maniacal witches, or the oppressed people of Scotland, were both superb and tight.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.