There’s nothing like a good performance of Verdi’s Macbeth and here is proof positive because this dvd is (almost) nothing like a good performance. It’s is a revival of a revival of a revival: the production originated at the Paris Opera Bastille, reached Covent Garden in 2002 and was filmed and released by Opus Arte previously from the Liceu in Barcelona in 2008.  So, for those of us who disliked this production the first time round now’s your chance to frown quizzically upon it again.

I don’t know why Phyllida Lloyd has so much trouble figuring out how to make this piece work theatrically. After all, she has a list of classical and modern theatre credits longer than my arm and she directed Mamma Mia! (exclamation mark tragically part of title, I checked). Liner notes are hopeless to illuminate what appears to be an institutionalized Marat/Sade ambience filtered through an Akira Kurosawa design stratagem.  

The set ( singular ) consists of some wooden, black square panelled walls that shift, rise and slide as necessary and a large golden cage open on one end that whirls about on a raised platform.  The whole enterprise just screams feudal Scotland—or maybe that was just me screaming? Anthony Ward is the party responsible for the entire production design, sets and costumes and I hereby banish the color red from all future mountings of this opera henceforth.  My moment of greatest amusement was the realization that Simon Keenlyside had been wearing a very large medical brace attached to his forearm and bicep with a large metal hinge all night long but, because the costumes were riddled with so many buckles and belts, I didn’t notice until the last scene. I especially liked the industrial looking and functional water faucet stage right. Every Macbeth needs one.  Don’t get me started on the Lucy & Ricky single beds that spend time on opposite sides of the stage after the intermission.

It’s one of those productions where the director fills in a lot of space between scenes with added business and characters. For instance, one of the witches in the first scene takes the note Macbeth’s written and delivers it personally to Lady’s sleeping hand during the orchestral introduction to Scene II.  Even worse is when our tragic couple slit the throats of their own real or imagined (?), children at the end of “Ora di morte” in Act III. None of it works and it just comes off as gratuitous. I could go on and on. Misdeeds, indeed.

I will concede that the apparitions in the witches scene at the top of Act III may be the most evocative I have ever seen. The three ghostly kings ride on horses covered with golden chain mail through much laying-on of fog topped by a singing cesarean infant puppet, ghoulishly realized. Lighting designer Paule Constable also pulls off one stunning coup de theatre during the dagger aria by using a laser, which goes a long way in a staging brimming with flaccid ideas.

At curtain up we have some excellent thunder and lightning to get us in the mood. Sadly, I’m at a complete loss to explain the get ups on the witches. Note I did not use the word costumes for there is a difference. Dressed in black dervish-like frocks they all sport large orange head wraps with enormous unibrows: an entire chorus of Susan Boyle at the halfway point in her day of beauty.

Simon Keenlyside certainly knows how to sing Macbeth and if he hasn’t been endowed by nature to do the role justice entirely on his own he has the canny knack of knowing where to spend and where to reserve.  I do dislike the way he points his chin at his chest all evening long to make a more “important” and resonant sound, it’s unnecessary and there’s nothing wrong with his own lyric timbre.  His singing is especially fine in the dagger aria in Act I and “Pietà, rispetto, amore” in the last act. He colors the text interestingly in spots, however, this was only his second attempt at the role after some Vienna performances in 2009 and I think more subtle characterization, or a production that wasn’t so blatant, would bring out even more of the best of what he has to offer in this very difficult role.

Blatant is also the good word for our Lady, Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastryska. She’s a stone-cold vocal technician in a role that probably has more hurdles than an Olympic track and field event. On the positive side she’s got a beautifully ample and clear voice from top to bottom that’s apparently seamless., though very light on the chest, if any at all. She’s got a come-hither trill and a really luscious and healthy sounding vibrato. She dispatches both verses of her Act I cavatina and cabaletta with ease and during “Or tutti sorgete” hits all the notes on the up and down roulade to the high B staccato! I was pinching myself with disbelief and joy. She sings a gloriously rich and varied “La luce langue” which could possibly be the best live version I’ve ever heard.  As I heard the orchestra launch into the Brindisi in the Act II banquet scene I thought what a pleasure it was not be filled with dread over how the traumatic soprano of the evening was going to negotiate her way out of this one.

Which is why the real tragedy of this performance is when her sleepwalking scene unravels like a cheap, airport gift-shop, Scottish kilt that’s been caught on a snag. She sings a good portion of the beginning directly through her nose which, frankly, is something I’ve never heard a singer do before and it’s just plain odd sounding.  Then after “Tanto sangue imaginar” she throws herself on her bed with a wildly outsized laugh that elicits all kinds of the wrong reaction.  Her acting, which has until then been limited to bulging eye sockets and amateur attempts at glowering malevolence, really verges on the ridiculous here. She even sticks her fingers in the mouth of the poor Doctor observing stage left alongside the nurse. After a magnificent pianissimo D-flat at the finale, though,  she gets huge applause. Perhaps the distance of the theater helped. Suffice to say she’s no subtle schemer and she needs to find her poise as an actress. I can’t help feeling that If she’d simply stood under a spotlight, remained in character, and sung the snot out of it without all the business she would have gotten a standing ovation.

American bass Raymond Aceto is on the lighter, lyric side for Banquo. He manages to achieve something like the sepulchral sound I like best in this part even though the bottom doesn’t resonate like it should. If his rhythmic pointing isn’t as sharp as it could be in the opening duet with Macbeth he makes up for it with a decent version of “Come dal ciel precipita.” We’re spoiled by all the great basses who’ve recorded this role.

He also seems to have attended the same acting school as Dimitri Pittas who,as Macduff, seems to spend an inordinately large part of the evening looking like Bambi in the headlights. He’s in the same role on the Met DVD from 2008 and I wish I could say he’s grown in the part. It’s the same shallow tenor with very little bottom and he simply doesn’t look comfortable on stage. He’s just sputtering, spasming and blubbering with a vast array of facial tics all attached to his vocal technique. He sings well enough and maybe, again, I’m just spoiled by all the star tenors who’ve recorded this role but, I think he lacks grace both musically and dramatically. Is this the best we’ve got ?

Antonio Pappano is chillin’ in the pit in his Nehru jacket and he wrings every bit of drama possible from this score. The trick to early Verdi is making all the tempos relate to one another in a natural progression so you’re not constantly aware of the stop and start and he makes this difficult assignment sound effortless. He could take a stronger hand here and there but I consistently noticed him giving the singers room and helping guide them to their best tempo. He’s especially good with the chorus, which has always been one of Covent Garden’s most dependable glories, and they do some of their best work here in spite of Lloyd’s staging silliness. Pappano also uses the forces in the pit to exemplary effect in filling out all the colors in this score that was written far before Verdi himself was a master orchestrator.

Video direction by Sue Judd could have been a little more evocative and it felt like there were times when the camera was catching up to the action.  Picture and DTS sound are flawless and I bet the metallic costumes would look even sharper on Blu-Ray.

A mixed bag, at best, with a production that doesn’t have a unified concept. I kept returning to it though to see if I was harshing on it too much.  We still don’t have a definitive version of Verdi’s seminal work on video and I’m ever eager for the next attempt.