For the opening night of the Munich Opera Festival, the Bavarian State Opera delivered Verdi's Macbeth with the kind of heavyweight cast that can mostly only be dreamed about in today's opera world. Despite the faults of Martin Kušej's rather jumbled production, the total commitment and vocal splendour of the cast, particularly the duo of Anna Netrebko and Simon Keenlyside, made this surely one of the highlights of this year's opera calendar as well as a showcase for an important role debut for Netrebko.

Anna Netrebko (Lady Macbeth) © Wilfried Hösl
Anna Netrebko (Lady Macbeth)
© Wilfried Hösl

The role of Lady Macbeth is one of Netrebko's first forays into the kind of heavier roles that her maturing voice almost seems to be demanding to take on. Many have criticized her facility in coloratura, but it is clear that she has worked diligently on it and it was largely accurate here where needed, with some good trills in the brindisi. More importantly, she came across with genuinely volcanic temperament, giving unstintingly in the service of both music and drama. The opening aria was savagely incisive yet gloriously full in tone, with frequent dips into a surprisingly rich chest voice. Netrebko has the vocal amplitude to ride over the orchestra and chorus thrillingly, dominating the first act finale and ending it on an immense high D-flat. At the other end of the dramatic spectrum, the sleepwalking scene was introspective and very creepy indeed, capped by another D-flat but this time an ethereal pianissimo - a gorgeously still moment.

Interestingly matched with this force of nature was Keenlyside's psychologically complex interpretation of the title role. Dramatic sparks flew between him and Netrebko in their every interaction, his more introspective acting style providing an interesting character contrast. Both looked natural in the often physical acting required by the director. Keenlyside was particularly effective in his scenes of delusion, fully inhabiting the Scottish king struggling for control. His strong baritone may be a little short of Italianate ring, but it is always at the service of the text. Considering this, it may be surprising that the apex of his performance was the lyric “Pietà, rispetto, amore”, but here the voice suddenly began to flow like a great baritone of old with immaculate legato, deservedly winning the biggest applause of the night.

Anna Netrebko (Lady Macbeth) and Simon Keenlyside (Macbeth) © Wilfried Hösl
Anna Netrebko (Lady Macbeth) and Simon Keenlyside (Macbeth)
© Wilfried Hösl

In this day and age we certainly do not lack for star lyric tenors, but even amongst these Joseph Calleja must be considered exceptional. His golden tone, combined with an intriguing, quick vibrato, caressed Verdi's long phrases in his great aria. Despite its lyric nature, Calleja's tenor also rang out fearlessly in the ensembles - although not the largest voice, it projected clearly even in the densest parts of the first and second act finales. Completely the line-up was bass Ildar Abdrazakov as Banquo. In the opening scene, he combined pleasingly with Keenlyside in their duet. If his sound is maybe a little baritonal for the moving address to his son, it was still winningly delivered.

Energy and vigour were the defining characteristics of Paolo Carignani's interpretation of Verdi's score. Even so, there was a beautiful suppleness to the rhythms - no automaton-like rigidity here. Mitigating the squareness of rhythm also meant blurring the lines more between the original score and Verdi's later revisions, making the work seem more of a piece than usual. The orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera seems one of the most proficient of opera orchestras, making its presence known without ever overwhelming the stage action. Little woodwind details hitherto perhaps unnoticed were made clear in an admirably transparent reading.

Simon Keenlyside (Macbeth) © Wilfried Hösl
Simon Keenlyside (Macbeth)
© Wilfried Hösl

It's just a pity that the production wasn't able to match up to the musical offerings. There were some striking visual effects in a slightly clichéd horror film kind of way; the stage floor was covered in hundreds of skulls throughout and there was recurring use of Banquo's severed head, at one point being cradled inside Netrebko's dress. Having the witches represented by several blond children (looking a lot like Fleance - perhaps the future line of Scottish kings?) was a nice touch and the apparition scene was suitably hallucinatory, particularly as the witches revealed the blood-covered second apparition from inside plastic wrapping. All of the evil seemed to emanate from a small tent onstage, from which the witch stand-ins emerged and wherein Duncan's murder occurred.

Unfortunately, much of the rest seemed like a case of too many ideas, too little filter. The choral scenes had a massed crowd onstage who were called upon variously to scratch themselves uncontrollably, simulate sex and at one point appeared to be urinating. These kinds of manic antics served less to make a salient point and more to simply distract, particularly during Banquo's aria. I suspect Kušej had very interesting ideas regarding the role of the people in this tragedy, but they were very much drowned out by the busy-ness of the production as a whole. Thankfully, on this occasion the thrilling performances of the leads were enough to let one ignore even the most egregious of staging excesses - this show has only one more performance this festival but I would encourage audiences to seek out particularly Netrebko's future ventures in this role.