Netrebko tears it up in the Met’s riveting, well-sung “Macbeth”

September 26, 2014
By Eric C. Simpson
Željko Lučić and Anna Netrebko star in Verdi's "Macbeth" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

Anna Netrebko and Željko Lučić star in Verdi’s “Macbeth” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

Opera, as we know, is not just about the singing. To hear a score sung in concert has its rewards, but to see the art form on its feet, passionately acted, is another thing entirely. Full-throttle, high-octane performances are what make opera, at its best, one of the most electrifying and entertaining experiences that art has to offer.

Adrian Noble’s gritty and gripping 2007 production of Verdi’s Macbeth, which returned to the Metropolitan Opera on Wednesday with a no-expense-spared cast, was a perfect example. Mark Thompson’s stark, grim sets, surrounded at all times by gnarled trees, turn Shakespeare’s psychological thriller into a riveting tale of horror

Nominally, Shakespeare’s tale is about a Scottish noble; in the critical tradition, it’s about a couple. But on Wednesday it was all about Anna.

This was Anna Netrebko’s first Lady Macbeth at the Met, and she grabbed the role by the throat and did not let go. This was not the most technically precise performance of the role—the Russian soprano’s thick vibrato was with her most of the night, a few high notes were slightly off, and she was a little heavy in the coloratura.

But Netrebko is at her visceral best when she pushes the pedal all the way to the floor. From the moment she first appears in her bedchamber, a peroxide blonde in a forest of black, brown, and gray, she was in complete command of the performance, reveling in her role as Mistress of the Dark Tower. She made sultry allure a major part of her character, at one point during her second-act aria “La luce langue” crouching down on the apron as she viciously purred out the line “A loro un requiem.”

Netrebko was forceful in her relationship with Macbeth, throwing her words like darts as she gave her husband a post-murder pep talk, and snarling the reprise of her drinking song at the banquet as though through gritted teeth. Nothing, not even her husband’s misgivings, would stand between her and her ambition. Netrebko’s commanding power made her eventual fall into madness all the more crushing: Her sleepwalking scene was so compelling, so riveting, that we could almost see the imaginary blood.

Željko Lučić held his own as the over-reaching thane, not quite matching Netrebko’s furious energy, but still delivering a dramatically compelling and vocally nuanced performance. His sound was not exactly booming, but it was more than enough to fill the auditorium, and his gristly timbre was a perfect match for the production’s dark aesthetic. His final, rage-fueled call to battle was harrowing.

Rene Pape, who will give a solo recital at the house on Sunday, felt like a luxury casting in the small role of Banquo. There are few voices in the opera world today more reliable than Pape’s smooth, bordelaise tone, and he made the most of his role on Wednesday, giving a noble portrayal of the honorable lord.

Rounding out the starry cast was the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja. Surrounded by dark, viscous voices, he stood out for his creamy, golden sound, quick vibrato, and ringing top notes, which showed not a blemish. His account of the heart-rending aria “O figli! O figli miei” was the evening’s vocal highlight, simply but sensitively phrased, earning a generous cheer.

Fabio Luisi led a thrilling performance from the pit, weaving spooky atmospheres and wringing every drop of drama from the score. There were a handful of dodgy ensemble moments, which he reined in quickly—otherwise, his was a tightly run ship. The Met chorus, as ever, sang with firm, rich tone, finding a beautiful moment of hushed tenderness in the chorus of refugees at the top of the fourth act. Noah Baetge’s clear-as-a-bell tenor brought heroic dash to the role of the young Prince Malcolm, and James Courtney’s gravelly bass made him a worldly-wise doctor.

Macbeth runs through October 18 at the Metropolitan Opera.

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