How many opera singers in their 70s choose to make a role debut in Verdi’s opera Macbeth as the title character? Plácido Domingo has added yet another baritone role of the ambitious but conflicted character of Macbeth in Berlin, at the Staatsoper under the direction of Daniel Barenboim. He was most ably supported by Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska as a fearless and unforgettable Lady Macbeth.

The production that premiered in 2000 is minimalist. As we enter the Staatsoper’s temporary home, the Schiller Theater with a capacity of about 1,000, we see an open stage with what looks like a mound in front center; the stage floor and walls are covered by a dark red cloth. A narrow circular walkway extends out from the stage to the outer rim of the orchestra pit; some action takes place on the walkway, bringing the performance close to the audience while presenting a coordination challenge between the conductor and singers.

Some costumes, most notably that of Lady Macbeth in Act I, as well as white masks worn by the witches, make obscure reference to Japanese traditional theater, but the rest of the staging gives the impression of undefined time and space, and characters often look like they belong to a science fiction drama. Macbeth carries a sword and wears a crown, and he and Banquo sport long fur coats that look from the Middle Ages. But Macduff and Malcolm, as well as their soldiers, looked like space aliens with helmets, wearing armor with skirts. The simple and timeless production made this an almost semi-staged performance with costumes. Lighting was effectively used throughout: shifting colors, red and blue as well as black, were evocative and enhanced the stage action.

In this abstract staging, a great deal of onus is placed on the singers’ and chorus’ ability to enact the story of the drama by their voices, acting and interaction with each other, not to mention a strong orchestra. The performance succeeded in all counts, and the result was gripping and memorable. When the quality of musical performance is of this high caliber, one hardly needs elaborate sets and costumes.

Mr Domingo began the performance somewhat shakily, having emerged from a small manhole cut out of the center of the mound on the stage, following Mr Pape’s Banquo, in their encounter with the witches. His breathing seemed a little labored at times, but he improved throughout the evening, and his second half performance was most impressive. He may lack the deep color of a Verdi baritone and his legato may at times be shortened for breath, but his musicality and elegant phrasing were still very much on display. He could also muster a tremendously strong and big sound, especially in his high notes. Macbeth’s final aria “Mal per me”, which is often dropped after Verdi revised his initial 1847 version in 1865, was included in this performance, with Mr Domingo impressively essaying the lower tessitura.

From her first appearance wearing a white gown and a platinum blond spiky wig, Ms Monastyrska’s Lady Macbeth was a demented and unhinged woman, boggle-eyed and with exaggerated gestures. There was little if any sexual energy between the two principals, but rather a common hunger for power and blood. Ms Monastyrska was completely in character, not just vocally but physically, and it was hard to take one’s eyes off her when she was on stage. While her stage presence was intense, it was her singing that was truly the center and core of this evening’s performance. Working closely with Mr Barenboim during her many challenging arias, Ms Monastyrska was masterful in her ability to control volume, and provide nuance and coloring to her voice, freely adding extra elements such as throaty laughs.

Lady Macbeth’s notoriously challenging entrance aria, “Vieni, t’affretta” was sung with no strain nor swooping, but was a delight to the ear.  She maintained her accurate and yet exciting singing in her scenes with Mr Domingo, and was often the dominant partner in their duets. Coloratura passages were beautifully, delicately and deftly sung. The staging called for her to sing her “sleepwalking scene” while stuck in the manhole, with only about two-third of her body above it. This seemed to symbolize that she was now trapped in the hell of her own making, and created a remarkable sense of uneasiness as she writhed through her aria, an interesting directorial touch.

The role of Banquo was luxuriously sung by René Pape, whose aria “Come dal ciel precipita” in Act II exuded noble authority. His voice was in splendid form, with deep, yet clear tone, coupled with an excellent breath control to sustain the long lines. Tenor Florian Hoffmann made the most of Malcolm’s brief appearance with his fresh and bright voice. Rolando Villazón sang Macduff’s lament in Act IV, “Ah, la paterno mano” with heartfelt abandon and commitment. While his voice impressively rang out, especially in the higher range, the voice often sounded dry and colorless.

Mr Barenboim began the first notes of the opening prelude with a slow tempo, but immediately speeded up as the brass joined the ensemble. Some of the choral passages, especially the witches’ chorus in Act I, were taken at a breakneck speed, and both the Staatskapelle Berlin and Staatsopernchor are to be commended for keeping up with his frequent shifts in tempi. There were some uncoordinated moments between chorus and orchestra, as well as singers (Mr Pape’s aria seemed to suffer from this), but by the end of the evening everything was coming together magnificently. It was an impressive outing for a première.

Verdi once remarked that his opera Macbeth has three voices: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the Chorus (witches). These three voices, an aging but still virile tenor, a younger fearless soprano, and beautifully trained chorus, all did the master proud this evening.