Verdi's Macbeth • Met Opera

I have not listened to Verdi’s magnificent opera Macbeth since the winter of 2016, when I was an assistant director for Loftopera’s production of it, deftly directed by Laine Rettmer and presented in a huge, vacant hangar in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, weeks before its takeover by a hipster chocolate manufacturer. The run took place during an icy period of heavy snowfall and it was freezing cold in the hangar. The brave musicians played their instruments with cut-off gloves and the singers were justifiably worried about their voices – I took it upon myself to keep Elizabeth Baldwin, our lead soprano, warm with electric blankets and a thermos of hot tea.   Every night, I was moved to tears by the glorious music and our spirited, engaging cast and ensemble, and Verdi’s luminous score resonated within me for weeks after the run.  

 I was really looking forward to seeing Macbeth at the Met for the first time. This is a reprise of 2007 production, but it’s not a lucky one. 

 How I missed Domingo in it. A fantastic operatic tragedian (my husband Filip calls him “the most Rembrandtian tenor we have”), he has proven again and again during his stellar, long-lasting career that he, perhaps better than anyone else, knows how to portray the deepest level of existential anguish and despair – from his iconic Otello to Don José or Siegmund. It would have been a treat to witness his Macbeth. I know it’s not fair to compare, and Zelijko Lucic, who replaced Domingo for the entire run after the latter was coerced to step down due to accusations of sexual misconduct, held his own rather well. Still, when Lucic re-entered the stage with blood stains on his shirt in Act I, I couldn’t help thinking that he didn’t come across like a man who had just committed callous regicide and was already gripped by the terrifying pangs of guilt and shame, but rather like someone who had just slaughtered a rabbit for the first time (which ain’t a walk in the park either –just ask chef Thomas Keller, but you get my point.) 

This production, directed by the Shakespeare Veteran Adrian Noble, gratuitously places the story at the end of WWII without doing so much as giving us a hint of a focused reason behind this decision. Not surprisingly, its visual cues are extremely inconsistent: the set looks like a bad decorator’s imitation of a Hollywoodian Edgar Allan Poe horror film; the king and queen’s medieval-looking crowns ludicrously clash with their modern clothes; the dancing during the banquet in Act II appears to fuse elements of Harlem renaissance and Viennese ball; the soldiers saunter around with machine guns they like to point at each other while combat, apparently, still happens with daggers. 

I suppose every director who tackles this opera struggles with the question of how to portray the witches, but when Noble decided to dress them up like handbag-slinging grannies, perhaps with he famous “Hell’s Grannies” from Monthy Python’s Flying Circus in mind, someone should have spoken up: it is simply not working, adding a half-baked note of camp that completely clashes with the rest of the production – nay, the entire opera. The witches brew in Act III turns out to be vomit from a treble of force-fed girls – are we supposed to read this as a statement on bulimia?  Why do directors invent rites that either do not “read” or make no sense whatsoever?

 MacBeth’s visions are also dealt with haphazardly:  the daggers in the famous dagger scene are not articulated at all (for the Loftopera production, I had come up with the idea of daggers made of sandy cookie dough that I baked in my home kitchen and that crumbled beautifully when Macbeth seized them), while the appearance of Banquo’s living corpse at the banquet scene is staged like a scene in a high school’s Halloween production, making ample and rather pedestrian use of a glaring spotlight. The three singing ghosts in Act III are digitally projected photographs – not even videos of lip-synching heads– inside an oversized crystal ball, suspended over a very loud fog machine, and the conjured vision of a procession of future kings is a laser show that has the precision of a disco ball descending at 5 AM: Macbeth sings, “There are three of them!” just when the sixth bronze figurine hesitantly descends from the ceiling… As Grace Jones once remarked to a particularly inattentive tech guy during her concert – but no, I’d rather not quote her here. The choreography for Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, begun over a series of chairs hauled over by the cackling witches seems to have taken its cues from Madonna’s Keep it Together encore from her Blond Ambition Tour. Bob Fosse would probably have been pleased to have inspired the latter, but not the former.  The crowd scenes, consisting of a mix of choristers and more or less eager extras, are often cringeworthy: every time they hit one of their more than obvious marks, a wave of satisfaction seems to ripple through them: We did it! Look! We did it in time, just like we rehearsed it! Meanwhile, their multiple walk-ons make so much rubber-squishy noise on the fake-volcanic-rock stage that I had to close my eyes, yearning for the craft of the late genius Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, a director who knew how to stage crowd tableaus that had the startling power of a baroque painting. On the other hand, the staging of Banquo’s murder and his son’s escape dearly lacks the sense of urgency it needs to become believable. 

 With all this embarrassing quaintness thrown around onstage, one might reassess the common critique often aimed at Netrebko for opting to skip some rehearsals now and then. Arguably, she knows from experience that it will be up to her to save the day by relying on her own sharp instinct and considerable musicality rather than adhering to instructions given to her by a director who, judging from this production, has neither.

This was Netrebko’s night. Looking voluptuous and luscious even in the bad blond wigs she is given here (I am really sorry to express this but I have to yet see one good wig coming out of the Met’s wig department), her Lady Macbeth is at first reminiscent of Anita Ekberg in Fellinis’ La Dolce Vita, languidly posing on satin sheets before vamping across the stage, her eyes gleaming with a lust for power that is more sensual than evil – a distinct choice that ads a human dimension to the character , showing hints of a vulnerability that will turn itself inside out at the end of this grand tragedy. But the real force of Netrebeko’s performance hits the audience when she becomes a commanding hostess in Act II, seething with anger and contempt towards a husband incapable of holding up the façade of regal righteousness. The highlight of the night is her rueful mad scene in Act IV, a masterful lesson in nuanced performance during which she molds every single note with great care and tenderness, giving each a highly specific emotional wavelength.   The effect is heartbreaking and her authoritative vocal artistry, bolstered by some very bold choices, simply awe-inspiring. Netrebko is a fearless stage animal: she knows how to use a prop such as a swinging lamp – but the point here is that she does not need it. 

The rest of the cast was solid. Each singer did his best to make an impact, but it’s clear that they had been given very little advice of substance. Notably, Matthew Polenzani gave a fine performance as MacDuff, opting for a mournful and tender interpretation rather than the more common muscular and confrontational stance I associated with the role since I first heard it.  It rightfully earned him a rousing ovation when he took his bows.

I came away with decidedly split feelings. I always side with the singers, and thank heaven for them – and the wonderful orchestra and choristers. Musically, it was a very rewarding evening. I wish I had liked the production. Many directors’ approach to opera is based on their own ideas, but I would argue that a director’s primal duty is not at all to present ideas– that is the realm of the authors – but to give us a thoroughly thought-through presentation and possibly interpretation of an existing work. When you run out of ideas or cannot make up your mind between realism or abstraction, why not simply go back to the source and look deeper into it to reveal its complex, psychological layers, instead of adding superfluous touches or concepts?

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that nowadays, many productions at the Met are handed over to theater directors. This is not always a safe bet. I think of it this way: theater directors are used to work on dry land, feet firmly on the ground, hands reaching for the stars. But opera is taking place on the sea, another element altogether. The music is the water on which the opera sails. Out here, time and space are different, and a director must willing to trust this deep element – and learn how to use the wind. Couldn’t someone please explain this to them so that all singers finally get the support they need to sail to the moon, nobly enabling us to suspend our disbelief and come along with them? Stop presenting us with this sort of meek dress-up that leaves us dry. The singers deserve better. As do Verdi and Shakespeare. And the Met.