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And no bones!

Apparently, opera fans got the bright side of the bargain: say “Macbeth” in the theater and you court cataclysm; utter the name in the opera house and, as often as not, you merely predict disappointment.  As disappointments go, the Met’s current revival of the Adrian Noble production of the Verdi opera is not without its attractions, but in a lackluster season, it’s about par for the course.

Much virtual ink has been spilled about the imagined binary of traditional productions vs those in the mode of director-as-auteur, but it should be noted that the majority of the Met’s productions stymie this rather too schematic view. Few cleave fully to the most literalist traditions and fewer still aggressively reroute accepted narratives. This Gelbian middle path is a difficult compromise.  Like any other aesthetic it may lead to rote or revelation, but you run the risk of alienating the traditionalists and boring the radicals just the same.

With a few seasons on this Macbeth to take off the rush of the familiar but not enough to excuse anything for being dated, it’s as good a time as any to review it with some sort of equanimity, and the verdict isn’t a happy one. Between the flaccid camp of the witches’ mise-en-scene and the Xanadu floor show of the succession of kings, it’s a weak brew. A few arresting tableaux (Macduff in his jeep, the Lady testing her balance on a row of chairs that has little aesthetic reason for being an no narrative one) are inspiring, but in their isolation cry out for a more comprehensive vision.

This could all, of course, be excused by great music-making–which did happen; just not very much of it.

Gianandrea Noseda found all that is vital and sinister in the score’s most extrovertedly dramatic passages and the joyous lyricism of the few uplifting pages—after the death of Macbeth, for instance.  Perhaps he glossed over some wonderful moments of fidgety neurosis, but it was a fine reading overall and top honors go to him.  Dimitri Pittas, too, after quite a few seasons of perfectly good service in the house, continues to sing prettily and with style (if, for all this, it is not tremendously stirring stuff.)  Günther Groissböck brings a beautiful but slightly underpowered bass to the Met, along with umlauts galore, should anyone need a few.

But the thing is you go to Macbeth for two reasons, maybe more like one and a half.  The main draw is surely always the hapless woman chosen to sing a role that demands dramatic heft, accuracy in florid passages, and a (let’s not kid ourselves) highly non-optional D-flat.  Right, and you have to be scary and look smashing in an evening gown.

While I find the idea of faulting Nadja Michael for moving and wearing clothes well (and thus sidling up to the conspiracy theory wherein Gelb wants to turn opera into one big voiceless cinematic pageant) rather tiring, I’m afraid her strengths in this role do largely end there.  Even the acting, ostensibly her biggest selling point, was guided by an aesthetic of “too much is never enough” and sometimes completely undermined by inexplicable tics such as repeatedly tucking her hair behind her ears–Lady M as Serena van der Woodsen.

The voice is big and thrilling in places, and on occasion she finds a dramatic declamation to match her feline energy onstage.  More often, her phrasing is unmusical, her passagework little more than gestural, and her pitch well beyond suspect.  She pulled off the letter and its aria with some success (though I found a little bit of Mari Lyn in her repetition of “Sir di Caudore…[no, ma, I’m not kidding!]…SIR di [fuckin’] Caudore!”  The sleepwalking scene you can’t fake your way through, and she couldn’t.*  In local parlance, it was filth, I’m sorry to report.

Listening to Thomas Hampson, I spent some time trying to imagine how a fan hears him.  I’ve liked him from time to time (Amfortas was a flawless piece of singing) but in Verdi, I just can’t hear it.  There’s an authority that’s missing, and without it, it’s hard to limn the shifts between Macbeth, the man tormented by his deeds, and Macbeth, the beast driven to them by ambition, inner reserves of ferocity, and Michael’s singing.

There is beauty there (in the poetic legato of the big aria, say) and occasional majesty, but where he cannot deliver, he reverts to the maddening habit of crooning, our Shatner of the operatic stage.  In purely vocal terms, there are times one wishes to say to him “you’re too short for that gesture, and besides, it went out with Gobbi.” It’s not a terrible reading of the role, but it hardly stands beside his most compelling work.

Oddly enough, none of this is by way of saying you oughtn’t go.  Though I was rarely stirred to great emotion, I was not bored, and—in contrast with a certain five hour German opera which shall remain nameless–Macbeth never made me laugh at unintended comedy.  (Except for the pantomime barfing in the witches’ cave in Act III.  That shit has got to go.)

* Except the audience really loved her so, what do I know, maybe she could.

Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

123 comments

  • Sanford says:

    Now that you ask that, I’m not sure. I always assumed she did, but I could be wrong.

    • stevey says:

      Sanford, I am pretty sure that Caballe never did attempt the complete role of Lady Macbeth…
      I remember reading once that, upon hearing that Caballe was thinking of essaying the role of Abigaille, Callas told her something along the lines of: “but you cannot do that. That would be like putting baccarat crystal in a cardboard box! It will break!!” (or something along those lines…). Anyway, possibly she felt the same way about Verdi’s Lady (especially parts of the role like the lower regions of ‘La luce langue’- a rendition of which I cannot find her doing anywhere).
      Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth, are two of my favorite Verdi’s as well, and Lady Macbeth is absolutely one of my top three Verdi roles (with Abigaille and Lucrezia Contarini being the other two). For some reason, I am always more than slightly disappointed when my Lady doesn’t take the optional high (I think) C sharp at the end of the wonderful Act 1 ensemble. I don’t really know why. Anyway….
      Of my Ladys, I have complete recordings of
      -Rysanek (live and in studio),
      -Cossotto (meh… Muti was the star here),
      -Souliotis (uh, ‘interesting’),
      -Verrett (live and studio, both from the mid-70′s and she is exceptional in both),
      -Zampieri (probably the most intelligent Lady of them all, a really fascinating interpretation),
      -Ludwig (excellent!),
      -Bumbry (have to admit I’m not a fan)
      -Nilsson (really impressive, even for her- in ensembles she has to be heard to be believed. Unfortunately the score is heavily cut by Thomas Schippers),
      -Callas (of course. Horrible sound),
      -late Jones (disappointing),
      -Gencer (wonderful),
      -Scotto (screechy in extremis),
      -Arroyo (magnificent!!!),
      -Rita Hunter (superb, I’m amazed at how deft she is in coloratura),
      -Olivia Stapp (also great),
      -Urmana (VERY good),
      -Guleghina (from the Met. She tries hard…), and
      -Monastryska (wild but very thrilling. She is probably second only to Nilsson in the way she rides the ensembles).
      Hell, who says a little OCD can’t be fun??
      I also used to have Nadja Michael from Chicago, but I deleted that from my computer to make room for something more useful and enjoyable- probably pictures of slow lorises being tickled and stuff of that magnitude (which should tell you how much I enjoyed her performance…).
      Anyway… possibly because of the whole ‘pianissimo’ thing, Caballe’s sleepwalking scene is pretty ubiquitous out there. Here’s her singing the ‘Vieni, t’affreta!’

      • Clita del Toro says:

        Caballe sings the aria pretty well, but she is trying so hard to be dramatic that the singing borders on screeching. I love the way she leaves out text when she feels like it! lol Not a role for her.

      • Clita del Toro says:

        PS Stevey: what about Dalis’.

        • stevey says:

          Clita, Dalis is someone I still MUST hear in the role… everyone’s told me about that D flat that I feel like- like seeing Florence- it’s something that one cannot die without having first experienced. :-)

          • Clita del Toro says:

            Dalis is a good LAdy. The Db was a terrible mistake.

          • mia apulia says:

            I remember tuning into the radio broadcast (1963?) expecting to hear someone else (Nilsson?) as Lady M and getting Dalis instead, and being quite disappointed--at least until I heard Dalis, and she was quite good. I’d love to hear that broadcast again to check it against my now hazy memory.

      • Boris Sarastro says:

        What? No Leontyne Price? Her Lady M is amazing!!

      • Belfagor says:

        Wow -- you seem to have almost everyone whoever did it, except for Amy Shuard!

        I have quite a soft spot for some of the German school in this role -- top of the line is Astrid Varnay (though no Db) -- not so great is Inge Borkh, exciting but the phrasing is chaotic -- Christa Ludwig is very internal (none of these ladies do the Db of course).

        Would have been interesting to hear Vishnevskaya do it, but the extracts on youtube sound a bit undisciplined -- not for repeated listening, and the coloratura is improvised…….

        I saw Sylvie Valayre do it at Glyndebourne -- frankly she seemed a bit out of her depth -- did’nt quite have the slancio and sheer force needed. Mind you, it is an impossible role.

      • MontyNostry says:

        stevey, you are one for the Ladys! Incidentally, wasn’t Caballe originally scheduled for the Abigaille that Dimitrova ended up recording (magnificently) with the (not so magnificent) Sinopoli?

      • Camille says:

        stevey dear — my you do go whole hog, don’t you?
        I wish you would appear more frequently here as you have such wonderful content.

        Still trying to recover from your story of the first time you ever went to the Met.

        bye for now,
        Camille

        p.s. — what Clita says is true about Dalis — except for that bloody awfully wonderful D flat, which is wonderfilled in its own way, it is a good accounting of the role. Not to be missed!

      • kraneled says:

        fantastico

    • Harry says:

      I saw Rita Hunter do Macbeth with Sherill Milnes in 1982! At least she had the coloratura in her voice and the mean dramatic heft for Lady Macbeth..

  • kekszakallu says:

    I first saw Cynthia Makris in 1995 as a good, but not outstanding Marie/Marietta in Die tote Stadt in Ghent. 3 years later as Salome in Stockholm she seemed overparted, so it was with some trepidation that I went to see her as Turandot at Savonlinna in 2003 -- but she was excellent. We sat in the back row and her voice soared over chorus and orchestra.

    • stevey says:

      Makris was also an excellent Lady Macbeth, I remember hearing a broadcast from Savonlinna and being especially impressed. I always seem to get her confused with the Swedish Lena Nordin, another important singer in Scandanavia who it seems can sing pretty much everything well. Ditto Sylvie Valayre (whom I LOVE)… how such an immense voice can come from such a slight and petite woman I’ll never know.

  • MontyNostry says:

    Off-thread, but is Juntwait pronouncing Olga Borodina’s name correctly on this afternoon’s broadcast? She is saying Borodeena. I thought it was Borodinuh, with the stress on the final syllable. Does anyone know for sure?

    • sola soletta says:

      In Russian you would stress the second syllabe. Bo-RO-dina. And you very likely pronounce it as “Barodzina”.
      The same goes for Obrazstova. Most Russians would say “Abraztsova”.

      • MontyNostry says:

        So in fact it has the same shape as Rachmaninov, if you see what I mean.

        • sola soletta says:

          No, no, you actually both write and pronounce r-A-chmaninov. That’s different. Or did I get wrong what you meant? :S

    • Maury D says:

      Hm. I have read/been told the stress is on the last syllable (which, with vowel reduction, makes it something like “buh-ruh-dee-NA.” Also I’ve never heard Rakhmaninov with the stress anywhere other than on the second syllable.

      • Batty Masetto says:

        CALLING M. CROCHE! M. CROCHE TO THE PRONUNCIATION DEPARTMENT PLEASE!

        • m. croche says:

          I think Maury is probably right regarding Borodin-A (emphasis on the final syllable -- see for example: http://tinyurl.com/7rzw39z). But Bianca’s librarian’s warning is also useful.

          The Standard Rule of Thumb for Russian Pronunciation: Choose the syllable that seems least like to receive the accent, and pounce on it like a Siberian tiger. (The real art is: having once chosen the least likely syllable to be emphasized, not to second guess yourself.)

          As Liana will tell you, Polish pronunciation is much simpler.

          • Batty Masetto says:

            Thank you MC -- If I recall correctly, Maury’s pronunciation is also pretty much what the lady herself uses on those Met blurbs between numbers when there’s no full-length performance on.

      • Bianca Castafiore says:

        I asked a Russian librarian once, and she said it depends on how her family pronounces it. The stress could be on the ROH or on the DEE, was her guess..

        Also, I recently asked someone how to pronounce Khovanshchina, and I was told it should be roughly Ha-VAHN-sheena.

        • Bianca Castafiore says:

          I must correct myself, those stress guesses were mine, the librarian did not say where it should be, she basically said: it depends.

          I’d think Juntwait would have cleared the pronunciation with Olga herself. (How does Juntwait say it, btw?)

          • MontyNostry says:

            Bianca, as I mentioned at the top of the thread, Juntwait was prononouncing it BorodEEna, which is what surprised me a little: I used to do the same, although I changed my habits when I heard reliable sources pronouncing it with the stress on the final syllable. And I don’t always trust Juntwait. Her ‘Lohengreen’ still rings in my ears. By the way, talking of Russian pronunciation, I get really irritated by Anglophones (the Brits,certainly) saying “Shosta-coe-vich”.

      • Krunoslav says:

        Not all Russian names are treated the same way!!!

        The male variant is buh-rah-DEEN, and Olga’s name is indeed buh-rah-dih-NAH!

        Whereas Ivan Bunin (BOO-nihn), Olga BOO-nih-nah.

        Believe me! Many years the language I have studied and even taught…

        • Maury D says:

          I have this vague memory of reading or being told that the name Ivanov could be stressed on any of the three, depending on the person bearing it, and that there were even class implications to the different pronunciations. Regular word stress is a luxury not found in Russian, alas.

  • stevey says:

    Slightly OT, but Nadja Michael’s webpage says that she is going to be starring in a new production of ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ for the Metropolitan Opera.
    Why is it that my interest is more than slightly piqued by this, and in a GOOD way??

    • manou says:

      Does OT stand for Orrible Thought?

    • Clita del Toro says:

      Because you are a glutton for punishment! :+)

    • MontyNostry says:

      In which case, Bluebeard should lock her up behind the first door.

    • Feldmarschallin says:

      Bis zum Jahr 2014 sind folgende Partien jeweils in Neuproduktionen terminiert: Lady Macbeth in “Macbeth“ von Verdi an der Metropolitan Opera New York, “Médée“ von Cherubini am Téâtre des Champs Élysées Paris sowie Poppea in “L’Incoronazione di Poppea”/Monteverdi in Madrid und am Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. Judith in “Blaubarts Burg”/Bartok an der Metropolitian Opera New York….
      well not exactly…the Metropolitan Macbeth is not a new production. Good for her. The more she sings at the Met the less chance we have to get her here. :)

      • oedipe says:

        Well, it looks like Mortier likes Michael. So, I am sure it’s only a matter of time before the avant-garde elite declares her a very intelligent artist.

        • Feldmarschallin says:

          Well I know it is fashionable to blame Mortier for many things and some will even maybe blame him on the tragedy in Syria but Michael sings also in other major houses including Macbeth here next season again and has further Met contracts so we can add Bachler and Gelb to that list. How often has she been singing in Madrid or Paris before that?

          • oedipe says:

            I’m not blaming Mortier for anything. YOU mentioned Madrid. And I know many people who take everything Mortier does in Madrid for the gospel.

        • Harry says:

          What! As the Ute Lemper …..of ‘performance piece’ opera?

      • MontyNostry says:

        She is the Terminiertor (or should that be the Terminiertorin)? Intelligent artist? Certainly clever to get people to book her.

    • Harry says:

      If only Nadja Michael’s voice could share the same fate as of Duke Bluebeard’s latest wife! Locked away for good!

  • Clita del Toro says:

    NYT Schweitzer review of Macbeth. No comments. I can see why.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/17/arts/music/verdis-macbeth-at-the-metropolitan-opera.html?ref=arts

  • Will says:

    I saw some YouTube clips of Marissa Galvany as Lady M. that aren’t bad at all. Crespin did the sleepwalk in what I remember as a performance infused with sadness and grief. No D but she was Crespin and had a lot else to offer. Anybody know the German-language compete recording with Schusnus and Hongen? I imagine she might have done something interesting with it.

    • J. G. Pastorkyna says:

      I may have dreamed it, but I think I read that Callas (and Prêtre?) listened to the tape of that Crespin scene while recording something else at EMI France. Callas was critical and asked for a quick run through herself, which she performed to perfection.

      Now I just checked my facts (Ardoin) it was the Crespin Ritorna Vincitor that Callas objected to in the same album. And it wasn’t Prêtre, it was Rescigno. That makes sense: I can imagine pulling off Ritorna Vincitor out of stress and anger. The scena, not so much.

  • auracentral says:

    Stevey and Clita on Macbeth.

    The Dalis broadcast Macbeth replacing Nilsson is available complete in MetPlayer (now called Met Opera on Demand or MOoD as I call it). The D flat is an unfortunate conclusion to a memorable assumption. MacNeil and Giaiotti deliver these roles as next to no one can today. MOrell is adequate, and Santi, whom I normally abhor is much better than usual.

    Some of my other Lady Macbeths--
    Hanne-Lohre Kuhse (Boston with Caldwell and a spectacular Paskalis in the original 1847 version. Kuhse was less than zero.
    Barstow in GLyndebourne video with Paskalis very fine and she has a Chicago broadcast with Cappucilli. Normally overhyped by the Brits, you don’t want to see her mouth contortions, but she’s very fine.
    Pauline Tinsley from Philadelphia with Conlon all of 25 maybe conducting. Sarabia was nothing, but Tinsley was the singer Rosenthal and gang should have been promoting.
    Malfitano from Chicago in the 90s in a dreadful Alden production, but she offered her own musical horrors.
    Verrett (whom you do comment on) I saw in Boston, DC and NYC. She sang this role over a good bit of time and often memorably. DOn’t like Strehler’s idea of Macbeth himself reading the letter.
    Dimitrova was a dud in Pittsburgh , but I finally caught up with Bergonzi in the role. He was well worth the 600 mi. round trip.
    Deutekom in Hartford and Newark. (Exceptional in Hartford, very good in Newark).

  • Freniac says:

    Carol Vaness sang the role here in Amsterdam almost a decade ago (2003, I think). I don’t remember particular details, other than that the Vieni, t’affretta and cabaletta were more than a little rough, and that her sleepwalking scene was pretty mesmerizing. Which is sort of true for so many half successful Lady M. portrayals: a hard time in the more florid music when the voice has to move and respond quickly, but sometimes with a redeeming concluding scene. I don’t remember if she took de high D-flat in the sleepwalking scene, although I think she did, and she certainly sang the C-sharp, and loudly at that, at the end of Act 1. She also did a more than decent job in the acting department.

  • bigred60 says:

    Don’t forget Elizabeth Connell. she was wonderful as Lady Macbeth in Philadelphia with Muti.