Verdi: Macbeth

Maria Guleghina, Zeljko Lucic, Metropolitan Opera/James Levine (EMI 2063049)

7 October 2008 2.5 star

MacbethI've always had a soft spot for Verdi's Macbeth, one of the composer's first truly distinctive and individual works that in many respects provides an ideal compromise between the Shakespearean antecedent and the conventions of ottocento Italian opera.

Those who deride Verdi's achievement here are often ignorant of, or unwilling to embrace, the latter priority. For instance, the Chorus of the Scottish Refugees bows to the spirit of the Risorgimento (the movement towards Italian unification); the scene of Banquo's ghost at the banquet is written around the conventional second-act finale; and the witches' music is deliberately banal-sounding, an example of both the jocular macabre (in Dallapiccola's phrase, denoting banal-sounding music used to depict dark characters) and chiaroscuro (light and dark juxtaposed with one another for the purpose of mutual intensification).

This DVD of the opera's second (1865, Paris) version is based on the live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in New York on 12 January 2008. It was apparently a rare outing for Macbeth at the Met, where it was receiving a new production from Adrian Noble. One would think that with a former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and an experienced Verdian such as James Levine, the chances for success were high.

But I'm afraid that neither musical nor dramatic standards go beyond the adequate in this DVD, which does not come close to competing with various studio recordings of the opera by the likes of Abbado (my favourite), Muti (who recorded sections of the 1847 version as an appendix, though it's not included in the current CD release) and even Leinsdorf, who recorded the piece with the Met Orchestra and Leonie Rysanek several decades ago. Added to these are two recordings by Gardelli (one with Fischer-Dieskau, the other with Cappuccilli), and one each by Sinopoli, Chailly, Schippers (with Nilsson) and a live recording by Vittorio Gui starring Leyla Gencer. For me, most of these recordings, however flawed (and admittedly without the visual element in most cases, Chailly's film excepted), have more to recommend them than this new Met DVD.

The initial problem is that Noble's production, which updates the story to the twentieth century, lacks true focus and atmosphere. In an interval feature, he discusses how the change of period helps to draw parallels between the piece and our times, specifically how the flaws and ambitions of those in power affect the populace, both collectively and as individuals. It's effective up to a point: the events post-World War II sit nicely with Verdi and Piave's depiction of civil war. But the direction of the singers themselves seems remarkably lacking in focus, so that they tend to stand and sing and look rather helpless. Though there's a featurette showing Noble coaching the two principals in their big duet, in which the director encourages them to behave as if they 'fancy the pants off each other', I really don't find that the highly-charged psychological undercurrent of the work is portrayed with enough power.

It doesn't help that Levine, for all his love of the piece, is prone to extremes of tempo. The brindisi, for example, whizzes along far too quickly, so much so that the speed isn't maintained because the singers can't cope; the Chorus of the Refugees is so slow that it sounds enervated rather than oppressed. The quality of the orchestral playing is high – witness the brilliance of the brass at the start of the finale of the opera – and the chorus is in excellent voice, but this isn't one of Levine's more persuasive Verdi readings.

The casting, too, is cause for concern. Lady Macbeth was always a challenge for Maria Guleghina, but here she sounds way out of her depth in much of the score. It's to her credit that she makes a lot of the character – possibly because she's done the role in a number of other productions – and it's convincing that she could both dream up and enact the crimes. The sleepwalking scene is excellently done, too. But vocally, she can cope with neither the coloratura of her entrance aria nor the cantilena of 'La luce langue'. In a couple of places, she lets out high notes with a lot of power, but intonation is invariably a problem in such places. 'Una macchia' is more convincing, if not as chillingly sung as I've heard others do it, but while Guleghina's presence outdoes most of her colleagues', her vocal performance is disappointing.

In the title role, Zeljko Lucic is strained above the stave but offers lyrical beauty elsewhere. He has a moving dignity that gets him through the evening, but he doesn't inhabit the character with enough insight or variety to make viewing his performance (as opposed to listening to it) particularly necessary. Both John Relyea (Banquo) and Dimitri Pittas (Macduff) sing excellently and do their best with the production, while Russell Thomas is a notable Malcolm. But I'm afraid that's not enough to make this DVD a serious recommendation. Guleghina fans should stick with her earlier Barcelona account of the role on Opus Arte DVD, while for me the ultimate musical experience remains Abbado's recording with La Scala.

By Dominic McHugh

EMI's new range of Met Opera DVDs continues with Mattila in Manon Lescaut, Gheorghiu in Boheme and Domingo in The First Emperor. See here for more information.

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