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Friday, March 16, 2012

Opera Review: Making Plans for Duncan

The Metropolitan Opera revives Macbeth.
Thomas Hampson and Nadja Michael discuss dinner plans for King Duncan.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera's recent hot streak continued Thursday night with the return of Verdi's Macbeth. This revival of Adrian Noble's stark 2007 show featured two debuts, making for an evening of bloody good Shakespeare.

As Macbeth, American baritone Thomas Hampson remains an uncommon singer, taking on a role that is on the heavy side for his smooth, pliant instrument. He pushed the limits of his voice at times, using all of his skill as an interpreter to find the dark, murderous heart of the character. His voice fades slightly at the lowest notes--audible in the Act III scene with the Witches. However, he handled the wide dynamic range, going from horrified whispers to shouts of bravado. The quality of singing in the final act made one long for Verdi's (original) 1847 ending, where the King gets a proper monologue and death scene at the opera's end.

Opposite him was German soprano Nadja Michael in her house debut as Lady Macbeth. Mr. Hampson and Ms. Michael have played the Macbeths before, notably at Covent Garden. They play Shakespeare's ambitious Laird and Lady as an old married couple, whose blood-drenched quest for the Scottish throne presents a welcome alternative to haggling over haggis.

Lady Macbeth is not a long part. Her vocal demands are even greater than those placed on the hapless husband, with whispered passages, muttered oaths, a soaring brindisi and moments of sheer, lung-busting power. Ms. Michael brought her 'A' game, starting with the Letter Scene. She brought steely determination to the central acts, egging on  Mr. Hampson, singing with power where a lesser soprano would have screamed.

But that was all appetizer for the main course: the Sleep-walk in Act IV. Here was a performance where Verdi's music expertly underpinned the translated Shakespearean text. Ms. Michael opened the door into the unworldly mind of the mad Lady M., hissing out "Va il tico maladetto" and floating the last notes of the scene with impressive technique.

Tenor Dimitri Pittas made one wish that Macduff was a bigger part with his Act IV aria mourning his murdered children. But his voice vanished after that scena into some ugly sounds. Günther Groissböck was a bluff Banquo who was more dramatically interesting as a ghost. The choristers were solid as the Witches, the Murderers (though the "Murderers Chorus" is Verdian overkill.) They also delivered a tight "Patria oppressa", an effective 19th century protest song.

Conductor Gianandrea Noseda showed his skill and experience, leading the revised 1861 version of the score minus the ballet. He chose fast tempos that had the orchestra moving briskly through Verdi's dark Scottish landscape. Mr. Noseda conjured the dark forces of the Witches scenes effectively, and brought off the complicated finale with panache.

Mark Thompson's set: soaring black columns, a fieldstone disk stage and background of trees scream of New Bayreuth. Goofy modern touches remain: Scottish warriors armed with AK-47s, IKEA furniture, and drop-down light fixtures. The Witches are a gaggle of society ladies, with lit flashlights in their clutch purses. Are they supposed to represent the donors who funded this show?
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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.