On a triumphant opening night of Verdi’s Macbeth at the Metropolitan Opera, a smattering of boos resounded. The intended recipient? Adrian Noble, returning to direct this second revival of his 2007 staging. The reason? Who knows. There’s nothing offensive or even mildly controversial about the updated setting, which depicts a war-torn country ripping itself apart, the militia led by a rising star general. Glamorous frocks and black tie are dress code for the celebrations chez Macbeth, while there is humour in the frumpy, cardigan-clad witches, swinging handbags in time to the music.

Anna Netrebko (Lady Macbeth) and Željko Lučić (Macbeth) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Anna Netrebko (Lady Macbeth) and Željko Lučić (Macbeth)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Mark Thompson’s highly lacquered, steeply raked set is circled by trees. There is an element of abstraction as exterior and interior worlds collide – tree trunks close in to form the pillars of Macbeth’s castle, while chandeliers loom over the witches brewing their spells, swirling green clouds scudding overhead. Jean Kalman’s lighting silhouettes trees against a lowering, crepuscular sky. A lamp swings ominously like a pendulum, grabbed by Lady Macbeth and directed into the auditorium during her sleepwalking scene.

What a friend lovingly refers to as “furniture abuse” has become operatic cliché – when a director runs out of ideas, get a character to knock over a chair or two. Although chairs do take a tumble here, Noble uses them imaginatively. Macbeth, haunted by Banquo’s ghost, raises a chair as if to hurl it across the stage. Lady Macbeth intercedes and the two grapple for control, until she successfully lowers it, anchoring Macbeth’s mind. In the sleepwalking scene, Lady Macbeth walks atop an aisle of chairs, created step-by-step by the witches, who’ve taken hold of her senses. Noble also manages to make the victory celebrations after Macbeth’s death less trite than normal; Macduff is clearly still grieving for his wife and children, the future still seems uncertain… until Fleance, who fled Banquo’s assassins, emerges from the shadows.

René Pape (Banquo),  Željko Lučić (Macbeth), Anna Netrebko (Lady Macbeth), Joseph Calleja (Macduff) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
René Pape (Banquo), Željko Lučić (Macbeth), Anna Netrebko (Lady Macbeth), Joseph Calleja (Macduff)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Musically, this was a magnificent performance. Fabio Luisi thoroughly understands the dark tinta of this early Verdi opera and he led a gripping account of the score – urgent, pacy, yet drawing wonderfully rich colours from lower strings and woodwinds. He was fortunate to have assembled a terrific cast, led by Anna Netrebko’s house debut as Lady Macbeth, a notoriously difficult role to tackle.

“Tadolini has a marvellous voice, clear, limpid and strong; and I would rather that Lady’s voice were rough, hollow, stifled. Tadolini’s voice has something angelic in it. Lady’s should have something devilish…” Thus wrote Verdi to Salvatore Cammarano about a Naples production in 1848, expressing concerns about the casting of Eugenia Tadolini. What would the composer have made of Netrebko’s voice? “Rough, hollow and stifled” it wasn’t, yet neither was it angelic. Netrebko’s powerful lower register and voluptuous timbre were amply demonstrated in “Vieni t’affretta” as she awaits Macbeth’s return. She negotiated the coloratura (often a technical weakness) cleanly to deliver a high velocity cabaletta “Or tutti sorgete”.

Anna Netrebko (Lady Macbeth) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Anna Netrebko (Lady Macbeth)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Voice coloration was intelligent, such as the mocking tone to goad Macbeth into murdering Duncan or the blanched tone for passages in a gripping sleepwalking scene, capped by a well-controlled high D flat. Netrebko’s acting convinced from first to last – this was a no holds barred performance, utterly thrilling in its intensity. Is it reckless to subject herself to such a taxing role? Only time will tell. The roar with which she was received – and Netrebko’s own excitable reaction to it – was one of those special moments in an opera house you only get to experience rarely.

Despite Netrebko’s stellar charisma, Željko Lučić wasn’t outshone as Macbeth. Indeed, I enjoyed his performance as much, if not more. This was my first experience of Lučić live (he’s only sung Sharpless and Germont père at Covent Garden) and I was bowled over by his fantastic velvety timbre and the way he shapes phrases. The dearth of genuine Verdi baritones is a common complaint – and has been for decades – yet Lučić is the real deal. His warm, rounded tone was magnificent in his great Act IV aria “Pietà, rispetto, amore”.  It made one regret that Macbeth’s death aria “Mal per me”, with which the original 1847 version of the opera concluded before Verdi cut it in his 1865 revision, wasn’t reinstated.  

René Pape’s soft-grained bass made for a subtler Banquo than often encountered. His aria “Come dal ciel precipita”, as thoughts of foreboding chill him, was beautifully delivered, making one regret that Banquo is ‘bumped off’ so early in proceedings, Pape’s future appearances confined to being the “spectre at the feast” which so troubles Macbeth’s mind. Joseph Calleja’s honeyed tone, with its distinctive vibrato, made for a warmly sung Macduff, his appeal to his fellow Scottish refugees “Ah, la paterno mano” extremely touching in its sincerity.

This was the 99th performance of Macbeth at the Met; in the 1959 house première, the role of Macduff was sung by that paragon of vocal elegance and Verdian style, Carlo Bergonzi, who died during the summer and to whom this memorable opening night was aptly dedicated.