WILL AND ME: Verdi's Macbeth (2014) Review
VERDI'S MACBETH (2014) REVIEW:
CAST: Željko Lučić, René Pape, Anna Netrebko, Claudia White, Christopher Job, Raymond Renault, Noah Baetge, Joseph Calleja, Moritz Linn, Richard Bernstein, Seth Malkin, James Courtney, David Crawford, Ashley Emerson, Jihee Kim.
Live recording director—Garry Halvorson
Sets and costumes—Mark Thompson
As The Royal Shakespeare Company and The National Theatre slowly draw to a close with their “live” transmissions for twenty-fourteen, another popular theatre company in the merry old land of New York City raises their curtain on a new season of living recordings of their latest cultural offerings. The ever popular Metropolitan Opera begins its 2014/15 season with a production of Macbeth, the first Shakespeare play to be given a musical treatment by landmark Italian composer, Giuseppe Verdi.
Set to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei, the opera surprisingly follows the plot of its source material faithfully, with a lot of the “lyrics” practically becoming an analytical translation of the bard’s original text. The story is still about soldier Macbeth (played in this production by baritone Željko Lučić) who, after returning from battle, is told by a group of witches that he and his wife (soprano Anna Netrebko) shall become rulers of the land, provoking the couple to go on a murderous and seditious rampage that will ultimately lead to their downfall and the decline of their sanity and morality.
As this production is an interpretation of an interpretation, I have two aspects of the show that I would like to share my opinions on: Macbeth as a Verdi opera, and Macbeth as a Metropolitan Opera production. (The same way that I reviewed Otello, Verdi’s later and less impressive Shakespearean adaptation.)
As an opera in general, it is perhaps one of the best classical pieces I could have heard all year! I’m not usually a fan of opera, primarily due to the lack of rhyme and rhythm in the libretto and the dull pacing and staging (resembling more of a straight play than a toe-tapping musical). But with Macbeth (or The Scottish Opera as I like to sometimes call it, for supernatural reasons), I am willing to make an acceptation, especially that this tragic tale of murder and royalty differs in so many ways compared with other operas in existence.
Compared to the last Verdi-Shakespeare production I reviewed, the libretto is incredibly well-written and filled with the cleverest blank verses ever written for an opera. (In a dark story about murder, I was completely surprised to actually find wit and humour flowing from the mouths of the stars!) The text of Piave and Maffei flows more naturally and lyrically than Arrigo Boito libretto for Otello, reading like actual songs than dry speeches accompanied by music.
The arias and the large scale choral sequences give brilliant character psychology and storytelling to the piece, and thanks to Verdi’s ALWAYS ingenious compositions, the score and book becomes a tribute to the greatest team-up since Gilbert and Sullivan and their Savoy Operas. (Which is saying a lot since Verdi’s work actually pre-dates Gilbert and Sullivan’s work. I’m just not that good with making inspirational comparisons.)
I don’t know how closely the two librettists and Verdi worked together during the original writing period of the piece (was it a working relationship, or were they completely isolated from each other the whole time?), but what they ended up producing is pure gold and pure genius—something that I rarely see in an opera! It can accurately be described as a classic that grows riper with age.
The only criticism that I do have of the opera is the reduction of King Duncan and the multiplication of the weird sisters:
I know that in Shakespeare’s original play, Duncan is a fairly small role. But in the opera, he is given no dignity at all! He has no lines and only gets three-minutes of stage time before being murdered in cold blood. No powerful arias or any proper character development or anything—just a boring old bit part!
And I never understood why the creators of the opera thought it necessary to change the witches at the start of the story from a trio of hags to an army of three-hundred! (Give or take a few actresses.) Exactly what were they trying to achieve by having an army of women telling Macbeth their prophecy? Was it considered a frightening idea during Verdi’s era to have a WHOLE community of witches than just three? Was it easier back then to just have a choir of dark artists spooking the audience than actually putting an effort into their stage craft?
God knows why there are more than three weird sisters in this interpretation of the bard’s text. All I can say is that the end result is messy, no matter how many times you try to look on the bright side. The lyrics that the women say are clever and very well-written (as I established earlier), but having them sung by a choir ruins what could have been a scene just as memorable as “Double, double toil and trouble” in the original source material. What could have been musical numbers that defy gravity come out as a pretty good argument for why ALL geniuses, regardless of how much of an artistic brain box that they are, need an editor or someone to immediately inform them of a bad decision before it can jeopardize the popularity of their latest endeavours.
The witches as an army are annoying and awkward to watch in just about every production of the opera you see. I’ll forever love the director or producer who has the balls to reduce the witches back to a simple but EFFECTIVE trio, the way that Shakespeare originally intended.
Nonetheless, the opera is a fantastic piece of classical music. It was Verdi’s first time at adapting William Shakespeare’s for the musical stage, and you can clearly tell that he and his two book writers were giving it their all. It is an epic tragedy where the words “amazing”, “great”, “fantastic” and “brilliant” is—quite frankly—a massive understatement! But, unless a new word is invented, I guess they will have to do.
I think the opera as an opera a fantastic piece of work, but what do I think of the production staged at The Met? Well….just like the opera itself, the production I saw was amazing! Twice as amazing as its score and libretto, if you don’t mind me saying so!
Set in what appears to be the 1940s (I could be wrong), the production certainly enhances but compliments Verdi, Maffei and Piave’s work. The production design is imaginative, the costumes are incredible, the camera work of Garry Halvorson for the recording of the production is breath taking, and the cast is phenomenal! Željko Lučić is perfect as Macbeth; the beautiful Anna Netrebko steals every scene as Lady Macbeth; Joseph Calleja tugs on the heartstrings as Macduff; Noah Baetge adds a bit of much needed positivity as Duncan’s wronged but kind-hearted son, Malcom; and René Pape gives one of the best portrayals of Banquo I have ever seen. (Which is ironic to say since I am supposed to be analysing Shakespeare’s Banquo, not Verdi’s Banquo. But, we can’t argue with outcomes.)
And once again, the only criticism I can find with the production is the witches:
To add to their annoyingness, they are interpreted as posh ladies dressed up for a church fete or morning tea in the village square, but with a Gothic twist added to their get up. They are not at all scary, how they always insist on flashing whatever they’re wearing under their skirts at Macbeth is irritating and unsettling, and the presence of three non-speaking eight year girls in their entourage is just as annoying as the grown up women in the choir. And to top it all off, they are given bizarre dance chorography that consists of them bobbing up and down and swinging their 40 to 80 year old hips that looks as laughable as a campaign for Australian independence. (Not entertaining!)
At times like these, I wish that my experience of watching a Met performance wasn’t wasted on the encore screening of Johan Botha in Otello for this production of Macbeth over-shadows it dramatically! The direction is amazing, the casting is top-notch, and the overall look of the production does not disappoint. (Much.) It is the first instalment of The Met’s 2014/2015 season, and I’m sure any opera lover or Live at the Met in HD subscriber will agree with me when I say: They’ve made the perfect choice!