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