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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Opera Broadcast Review: A Dame to Kill For

Anna Netrebko shines in Macbeth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The blood couple: Željko Lučić (top) and Anna Netrebko in Macbeth.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2014 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera's 2007 production of Verdi's Macbeth has, until this season, lacked a soprano capable of singing, really singing the fearsomely difficult role of Lady Macbeth. This season, the Lady arrived in the unlikely form of Anna Netrebko, the Russian diva known for bel canto, particularly the operas of Donizetti. On Saturday afternoon, in the Met's first Live in HD transmission of the new season, Ms. Netrebko simply owned this challenging part, at the forefront of a stellar revival under the baton of principal conductor Fabio Luisi.

Macbeth was Verdi's first try at setting Shakespeare and the bloody tragedy inspired him to new and creative heights. The center of that experimental effort was Lady Macbeth, whose arias and scenes are loaded with challenging interval leaps, death-defying high notes and vocal effects. Faced with this hellish part, some singers resort to leather-lunged screaming in the face of the score's many challenges, doing nothing to help the reputation of this most excellent opera.

From the start, Ms. Netrebko dove into the material with gusto, singing the part with dark energy and genuine blood-lust. The singer's voice has matured and widened in scope, enabling her to encompass the full range of the part while still maintaining beauty of tone. (In fact if a flaw can be argued, her singing is too "pretty" for the role, but I'll take that over squalling.) The close (sometimes too-close) cameras picked up and enhanced the intensity of her performance, particularly in the chilling moment when the would-be Scottish queen summons the forces of hell to support her husband's ambitions.

This death-defying cabaletta was only the start of the fireworks, which continued over the four short acts and held the audience both in the opera house and movie theater in her thrall. Fawning over her husband one moment and plotting dark deeds the next, she was the perfect portrait of madness and ambition, almost a parody of the spoiled diva who gets everything she wants. The sleep-walking scene, where her madness takes over and Verdi strips the character bare, was touching and beautifully sung with her cries of "Va, il tico maladetto" and a slow, silent exit.

Her partner in marriage and murder was Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, who has matured and developed his portrayal of Macbeth in recent years. His was an intense and complete performance, capturing the heroism of the title character while at the same time spiraling down the road to madness. He was at his finest in the Banquet Scene, where each attempt to entertain the Macbeths' party guests was interrupted by the bloody ghost of Banquo, sending Mr. Lučić into another death-spiral.

The second half of the opera depicts the characters' rapid downfall. Mr. Lučić was both terrified and terrifying in the hokum of the Act III scene with the Witches and the apparitions. He was even better on the battlefield, singing "Pièta, rispetto, amore" with terror and regret, going boldly to his fate when informed of the suicide of Lady Macbeth. His final duel with Macduff (Joseph Calleja), staged as a street fight between two soldiers armed with big knives had a brutish physicality that spoke of long rehearsal by both men and an expert knowledge of this difficult part.

René Pape's formidable bass voice and star power may be overkill for the small part of Banquo, but the singer's presence and rock-solid tone were a welcome asset. In fact, having this fine bass in the role means that Banquo's brief part and onstage death was made all the more upsetting. Also in fine form: Mr. Calleja's Macduff, a role that was his professional debut years ago. The part is considerably smaller than in the Shakespeare play but he still gets one genuinely great aria to sing.

Adrian Noble's production still skates on the thin ice of parody, with the frumped-up witches looking like a laid-off chorus line from Mary Poppins and everyone (even Lady M.) wielding 9mm pistols. Far better was the murder of King Duncan (in a bed-chamber formed from onstage columns) and the banquet scene with Mr. Pape's bloody white dress shirt suggesting his performance in the 2012 Parsifal. The final act is pure warfare, with the characters dueling with AK-47s and a violent onstage rumble between Macbeth and Malcom's forces.

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