Rise and Rise Again, Then Fall Caesar!
Has there ever been a viler, more compelling, or more self-destructive pair than Lady Macbeth and her warlike mate, Macbeth? Indeed, has there ever been an opera more worthy of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of political intrigue, immorality, and wanton destruction and murder; of the inevitability of fate stretched to the limits of human endurance?
What powerful forces possessed composer Giuseppe Verdi to take on such a distasteful subject? And what poet, in his right mind, would indulge the Bear of Busseto’s thoughts on the matter? Truly, Verdi must have been out of his cotton-picking mind. What was he thinking? No love duet, no romantic tenor lead? No sympathetic soprano heroine or fatherly baritone to soothe the soul? It was downright absurd, but onward he plowed.
Having slaved through the so-called “galley years,” wherein Verdi composed, in rapid succession, one dutiful operatic work after another (e.g., I due Foscari, Giovanna d’Arco, Alzira, Attila, I Masnadieri, Il Corsaro, La Battaglia di Legnano, Luisa Miller, Stiffelio), all within a span of six years (1844 to 1850), at the exact midpoint the famed Italian master decided on something completely different.
He asked Francesco Maria Piave, his go-to-librettist at the time, to prepare an operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (or Macbetto in Italian) for local consumption. That was in 1846. To think that a foreign-born musician could do justice to one of English literature’s most revered poet-playwrights must have seemed an insurmountable task. To do so at this stage in Verdi’s career was doubly challenging. Yet, surprisingly, the opera received a favorable response at its March 14, 1847 premiere in Florence, but quickly faded from view. Too high-minded, too cerebral, no one to root for, and too “out there” for the average opera-lover to grab hold of.
Disappointed that his efforts were underappreciated, Verdi held a special place in his heart for the misunderstood Macbeth. So much so that, eighteen years later, he revised the opera for the Théâtre Lyrique of Paris. That was in 1865, the same year that Wagner introduced his unsuccessful reworking of Tannhäuser. Comparably, this later revision of Macbeth has stood the test of time, and is the one we regularly hear in performance — including at the Metropolitan Opera’s pre-recorded Saturday afternoon broadcast of December 21, 2019 (the performance itself took place on September 25).
The plot, as any high school student will tell you, is straight out of HBO’s Game of Thrones. If you are unconvinced of this claim, take a look at what happens to our anti-hero Macbeth. At the start, he rides in with fellow comrade in arms, Banquo (or Banco). They stop before a group of witches (of the cackling, kettle-stirring variety) who inform him, in a prophecy, that he will inherit the Kingdom of Scotland, after two other titles. Mind you, he’s not the only soldier to be favored with their visions: Banquo will never be king, but he will father many kings. Both men are confounded by the news.
After several of the events come to pass, Macbeth realizes that part of the witches’ prophecies have indeed been fulfilled. But what of Banquo and his path to father a coterie of kings? He sends a letter to his wife, Lady Macbeth, who subsequently beseeches her husband to strike down Duncan, the current King of the Scots, when his Royal Highness pays a visit to their castle. There, the dirty deed is done. Then, acting on impulse and goaded by his ruthless wife, Macbeth has Banquo killed, but the assassins fail to capture his young son.
As events continue to spiral out of control, Macbeth, at a banquet held in his honor, is nearly frightened to death by the bloody vision of Banquo’s ghost (an incident straight out of Hamlet). Macbeth’s Lady tells her husband to get a grip on himself, but Macbeth can hardly keep it together. In the midst of all the mayhem, listeners can pick out frequent echoes of operatic numbers to come, especially the early hints of Rigoletto in the assassins’ chorus and of Iago’s Brindisi from Otello in Lady Macbeth’s drinking song, along with her aria “La luce langue” (“The light fades”) from the 1865 revision and its similarity to Elisabeth’s sorrowful “Tu che le vanità” from Don Carlos.
Moving on to the witches’ coven, Macbeth demands to know more. They immediately oblige him by conjuring up three apparitions, each one with a hair-raising tale to tell: a helmeted warrior warns him to beware of Macduff; a bloody child insists that no man born of woman can harm him; and a crowned child claims he will be invincible as long as Birnam Wood does not move. “Hah! How can a forest move?” questions Macbeth assuredly.
Feeling better about his chances for long-term survival, Macbeth presses the hags for more answers: What can they tell him about Banquo’s ancestors? One by one, Banquo’s descendants materialize, a long line of them! When Banquo himself rises before him, Macbeth draws his sword, but is unable to dispel the image. The witches tell him that Banquo’s descendants will live a prolonged life, which makes Macbeth fall over in a faint.
His queen now enters. The two conspirators plot to kill anyone who gets in the way of their ambition, especially Banquo’s missing son. In the meantime, Scottish refugees have gathered to mourn the loss of their loved ones. It seems the murderous Macbeth and his army have ravaged the countryside, killing everyone in their path. Macduff enters to convey the tragic loss of his wife and children (in the heartfelt aria, “Ah, la paterna mano”). Malcolm, Duncan’s surviving offspring and heir to the Scottish throne, leads Macduff and their combined forces in a rallying cry against the brutal tyrant.
Just before the end, Lady Macbeth is spotted wandering the night in guilty remorse. She is met by the doctor and a lady-in-waiting. They note that her eyes are wide open, but she cannot perceive their presence. One of Verdi’s most ingenious episodes — a mad scene in all but name only — the famous “Sleeping Walking” sequence accurately mirrors the line “Out, damned spot,” from the play. Ending on a high D, which plunges down an octave, Lady Macbeth exits the opera. Only minutes later, when Macbeth is informed of her untimely death, he can only mutter to himself about the futility of life, “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Macduff advances with his army. They and Malcolm have deliberately cut the branches off Birnam Wood to hide their mass movements. Macbeth, seeing the moving forest before him (brilliantly captured by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa in his classic Throne of Blood), knows his time is up. Meeting Macduff head on, he challenges all comers. But when Macbeth boasts of his invulnerability, he’s in for the shock of his life as Macduff reveals he was not of woman born, but instead was ripped from the womb. With that, Macduff slays the miscreant Macbeth and the opera ends with one of those rip-roaring Verdian choruses.
It’s Good to be the King — Not!
All right. So we’ve proven to readers the Game of Thrones connection. Now what? Well, don’t let that deter you from enjoying this spectacular one-of-a-kind theater piece! The opera Macbeth is quite an extraordinary achievement, full of memorable tunes and forceful scenarios, not to mention two solid starring roles for baritone and soprano. Verdi’s genius for capturing la parola scenica (“the scenic word”) is evident in almost every bar. More importantly, his 1865 revision vastly improved the work’s viability for the operatic stage.
The Met forces revived the Adrian Noble production, first seen in 2007, for Plácido Domingo and Anna Netrebko as Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth, respectively. Unfortunately, Sr. Domingo was forced to cancel his contract with the company due to mounting accusations of sexual misconduct with women colleagues. His replacement, the Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, lived up to expectations. He was favorably partnered by Russian soprano Netrebko. You will note that both artists previously appeared together in October 2014. Curiously, that performance was also a taped re-broadcast, heard on February 7, 2015. Hmm, is the Met trying to tell us something? That tape is better than live? Not sure about that.
I seem to recall a broadcast Macbeth, years ago, where an elderly patron committed suicide by jumping off one of the upper tiers and into the orchestra pit. An odd turn of events, that was. Any reasonably knowledgeable theater-goer will tell you that to speak the name “Macbeth” at a performance — indeed, any performance — is a disaster in the making. Despite that accursed backdrop, “he who shall not be named” has brought much enjoyment to the operatic stage.
Past exponents of the two lead roles consist of a veritable who’s who of performing artists. Among the talents involved, one may cite Maria Callas, Leonie Rysanek, Birgit Nilsson, Fiorenza Cossotto, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Maria Guleghina, Ghena Dmitrova, and Andrea Gruber as Lady Macbeth, with Leonard Warren, Tito Gobbi, Cornell MacNeil, Giuseppe Taddei, Sherrill Milnes, Piero Cappuccilli, Leo Nucci, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Renato Bruson as Macbeth.
Great maestros have also been drawn to its musical and dramatic challenges (in all probability, Macbeth can be safely deemed a “conductor’s opera”). From the likes of Karl Böhm, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Erich Leinsdorf, Herbert von Karajan, Riccardo Muti, Lamberto Gardelli, and Claudio Abbado, to Carlo Maria Giulini, James Levine, Antonio Pappano, Fabio Luisi, and many others, Verdi’s music is both satisfying and appropriate to its source. Love it or leave it, Macbeth is a most unconventional adaptation of an existing stage work.
While the strictly minor roles of Macduff and Banquo are limited in scope, each has some poignant moments to share with listeners. Brief turns by tenors Domingo, Carlo Bergonzi, José Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti, Bruno Prevedi, and Joseph Calleja, have brought their talents to bear on Macduff’s powerful air. And the recorded Banquo’s, while not at all legion, have enjoyed voicing the melancholy “Come dal ciel precipita.” Basses Jerome Hines, Ruggero Raimondi, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Giorgio Tozzi, Bonaldo Giaiotti, and Samuel Ramey have plotted to spoil our ears with their mellifluous outpourings.
At the December 21 radio broadcast, Marco Armiliato conducted the Met Opera Orchestra, with Donald Palumbo in charge of the Met Chorus. Sets and costume designs were the work of Mark Thompson, with lighting by Jean Kalman, and choreography by Sue Lefton. There’s even a credited fight director, Joe Isenberg, as well as a stage band conductor, Bradley Moore. The Met left nothing to chance.
Lady’s Days and Nights
All eyes and ears were focused on Anna Netrebko’s Lady, all decked out in blonde tresses and silver negligee. You can tell this was going to be another of those “modern day” stagings. Fortunately for us, this aspect happened to work in the opera’s favor. Somehow, the politics of our day crisscrossed perfectly with what transpired on the Met stage.
Netrebko’s Lady Macbeth has grown in size since 2014, and her acting has matured to the point where she was able to transform herself into the scheming mistress of the castle. Her potent vocal actions, too, have expanded by leaps and bounds, to fully encompass the wide range of colors and surges that Verdi foisted on this malevolent personality. Along with her richly-hued highs, Netrebko’s low notes were to die for. There may be a second career for the Russian diva as a mighty mezzo. Only time will tell.
That Verdi expended so much time and energy on this character is made clear in his voluminous correspondence with his librettist Piave. Verdi saw, as others had, that Lady Macbeth was the chief motivator of her husband’s actions. Though not the titular attraction of the play or the opera, she was the driving force behind the drama just the same. Verdi became obsessed with her persona and the psychological motivations inherent in her actions — and aren’t we glad he did.
As he had with the earlier Abigaille, the adopted daughter of Nabucco (his first great success), Verdi emphasized the Lady’s wildness and plotting by writing the most exacting music imaginable. He avoided any kind of tenderness between her and her husband Macbeth in exchange for character development. Both protagonists grow as the story unfolds; that their lives are intertwined with the requirements of the plot is high praise indeed. Verdi stayed true to Shakespeare’s original, which is saying a lot for the composer’s theatrical instincts.
As her guilt-ridden mate, Željko Lučić also shone in the verbal tensions he brought to his scenes. His prior experience in the part lent this nearly last-minute assignment legitimacy. Although he has a habit of straying from the pitch and turning most phrases sharp or angular the higher up he went (with a minimum of vibrato), Lučić’s potent vocalism was pleasing, for the most part. He refused to make a meal out of the moody Macbeth’s unraveling, something not all baritones are prone to doing. I’ve heard many a so-called “star” buckle under the demands of this part. Luckily for us, Željko was not one of them.
Matthew Polenzani sang the short but crucial contributions of Macduff, his role debut. He, too, brought his distinctive style to bear on that doleful third act piece. Long-limned phrases and bel canto accents were bountiful and pure. Throughout the years, Polenzani has brought much pleasure to his growing fan base (yours truly included). His lovely turn as Nadir in the Met’s The Pearl Fishers a few years back was a marvel to hear. Russian basso Ildar Abdrazakov brought a regal bearing and his singular timbre and enunciation to Banquo. I found him luxuriating in the role’s highest reaches (which sometimes went astray, by the way), while his low notes got lost in the vast Met auditorium (through no fault of his own, we assure you).
Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, who I’ve heard on several occasions in the past (as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor and Ruggiero in Puccini’s La Rondine), seemed luxury casting in the brief exposure that Malcolm has. At times, his singing can be a hit-or-miss affair, but Filianoti stayed within the confines of what little music was allotted him. Of course, the Met Chorus outdid themselves in the opera’s moving Act IV sequence, “Patria oppressa!” (“Oppressed country!”), as sorrowful a choral statement as any that Verdi wrote and comparable, to some extent, to his earlier “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco.
Other contributions were brought to you by Bradley Garvin as a servant, Sarah Cambridge as a lady-in-waiting, Richard Bernstein as an assassin, Christopher Job as a warrior, Meigui Zhang as the bloody child, Karen Chia-Ling Ho as the crowned child, Yohan Yi as the herald, Harold Wilson as the doctor, and actors Raymond Renault and Misha Grossman as Duncan and Fleance, respectively.
The production itself was prevailingly dour and bleak (as befit the plot), with a gray-and-black color scheme and mirrored floors and paneling predominating throughout. What of the conductor? Maestro Marco Armiliato, an experienced hand in this and other Verdi works, kept things moving well enough, although I missed some of the striking brass utterings that the composer sprinkled about as part of the orchestration. The Met seems to do right by Verdi. May it always be so.
Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes