This Macbeth casting looked good on paper, and it delivered. There’s a feeling of safety you get when hearing the very best Verdi singers – and there aren’t many of those – that the notes will be hit, the tone will be smooth, the words will be clear, there won’t be the slightest hint of harshness or hesitation, and that you can just relax and allow the music to seduce you. Anna Netrebko delivered the security and more. It’s her vocal control that astonishes: where she can deliver the big money notes along with the best of them, what she can do is to shape the start of a note in a way that’s particularly satisfying, or accomplish a perfect pianissimo end to a phrase while throwing herself full length on a bed.

Željko Lučić (Macbeth) and Anna Netrebko (Lady Macbeth) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Željko Lučić (Macbeth) and Anna Netrebko (Lady Macbeth)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Watching Netrebko as Lady Macbeth, I realised that this is the first time I’ve seen her sing a role other than the romantic love interest: and I have to say, villainy suits her. She produced plenty of blind ambition in “Vieni! t’affretta!”, then venom and near contempt for her hesitant husband, nerves in “La luce langue” and exhausted despair in the Sleepwalking scene. Apart from loving the voice, I believed in every inch of Netrebko's character: this was a very complete performance.

Željko Lučić is one of the best Verdi baritones around at the moment, and didn’t disappoint either. Again, it’s the complete security that wins you over: the power and smoothness in the voice is a given, so you can enjoy the nuances of the expressions – haughtiness, terror, hesitancy, bloodthirsty paranoia: Macbeth is a great role because his state of mind is so labile, and Lučić gripped us as he took us through the emotional gamut.

Željko Lučić (Macbeth) and Anna Netrebko (Lady Macbeth) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Željko Lučić (Macbeth) and Anna Netrebko (Lady Macbeth)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

The third element which had us in complete security was the orchestra, purring through the score like a perfectly tuned engine: as well as maintaining constant drive and forward momentum, Sir Antonio Pappano conjured a better brass performance than I’ve heard at Covent Garden for many a year, which is particularly desirable since this is a score with a lot of martial music. Vocal supporting roles were strong. The tenor singing Macduff doesn’t get much chance to make an impression, since he only has a dozen lines to sing before his one recitative and aria in Act 4, “Ah, la paterna mano”. Yusif Eyvazov took his chance well, impressing with a generously open sound. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo provided good support as Banquo. The only real vocal disappointment of the evening was that the chorus of witches felt rather underpowered: the complex movement of both singers and dancers was vivid and exciting, but the sound output didn’t quite match. In contrast, the chorus was in fine form when singing together for the Act 4 “Patria oppressa”, which sets the scene for Malcolm’s return.

<i>Macbeth</i> © ROH | Bill Cooper
Macbeth
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Phyllida Lloyd’s 2002 staging, revived here for the third time, is a curate’s egg. There are some nice ideas, like the striking headdresses of the chorus of witches and the gilded cage occupied first by Duncan, then by the Macbeths when they take over the royal crown. A concept that works well is having the witches really running the show, as proxies for Fate itself: it’s one of the witches who relays Macbeth’s letter to his Lady in Act 1; another spirits Fleance to safety in Act 2. There’s also plenty of clever stagecraft as phantoms appear out of nowhere or characters fade into the background when it’s time for someone else to take over. But there’s plenty that underwhelms, such as Banquo’s not very ghostly ghost or the rather dull treatment of the dagger that Macbeth sees before him. But apart from the choreography for the chorus, the staging can feel very static, with the principals very much under-directed. And while there are moments of glittering brightness, the lighting is dingy for a great deal of the time, with many important scenes happening in near darkness – good enough in the expensive seats, but not, I suspect, in the upper reaches of the Amphitheatre.

How much did those production niggles matter? To most of this afternoon’s audience, probably not a great deal. They were here for the music and the singing singing, and they were treated to an exemplary orchestral performance under Pappano and a master class from Netrebko and Lučić. One to remember.

****1