Friday, March 16, 2012

Ambizioso spirto tu sei, Macbetto

As Daniel Albright wrote in an article on Verdi's Macbeth, part of the power of Shakespeare's tragedies (and perhaps no small part) lies in their absurdity. For the witches, Macbeth's mad succession of horrors unfolds as a comedy, tremendous illogic driving a loyal nobleman to treachery, and a kingdom to internecine strife and the brink of self-destruction. Are the witches wise women who read Macbeth's character better than anyone else, or are they, as Banquo posits in the Verdi/Piave libretto, surrounding a lie with truths in order to tempt him to destruction? Adrian Noble's 2007 production makes them village women, who seem to have constructed an alternate community of sorts; but it also suggests that they are meddling with powers far beyond their own control. The visual language of the production flirted with surrealism--one of its most interesting hints was that Birnam Wood is always already at Dunsinane--in a WWII-era society, heavily militarized. Between the giddy, glamourous banquest guests and the bitter, exhausted refugees, I wish I'd gotten a better sense of who Macbeth's subjects are; another haunting suggestion is that Duncan's "popular support" is no more genuine, and no less based on intimidation, than Macbeth's own. Violent (dystopian?) realities were no more than hinted at, however; while visually sleek, I found the production less than satisfying.

Leading the orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda brought out beautiful sound in nuanced phrasing, playing with dynamics and the nerves of the audience (well, mine, anyway.) The eerie horror in the score was chillingly evoked. Still, I did sometimes find myself wishing for violence, more reckless impulsion. This is a "what's done is done" sort of opera, and the orchestra could have been steeped a bit further in blood. The chorus--which Verdi identified as one of the most important ingredients in the success of the opera--contributed stellar work as witches, murderers, banquet guests, and refugees. The desolate "Patria oppressa" was a highlight of the evening. Richard Cox was a bright-toned and authoritative Malcolm. As Macduff, Dimitri Pittas sounded on much better form than the last time I heard him, and he contributed strong, incisive singing. The orchestra made me tearier than the tenor did in "Ah! la paterna mano," but maybe that's just me. Günther Groissböck was a new discovery to me; as Banquo, he was elegant and assured, restrained in manner but vocally charismatic.

The evening's Lady Macbeth, Nadja Michael, made her house debut to thunderous acclaim, and left me feeling (if you'll forgive the expression) bewitched, bothered, and bewildered. She lunged as fiercely at notes as at her husband. Her tone could go hollow, or come close to a shriek. And I found her strangely compelling. "Vieni, t'affretta"(staged, appropriately, in and around the Macbeths' bed) was sexy and exciting; I felt rather as though I needed a lie down after "La luce langue." I was expecting more sustained phrases in the sleepwalking scene, and Michael's delivery was curiously broken; I think the line itself would carry horror sufficiently, perhaps better, without so much "effect." Still, Michael's singing is the opposite of anodyne, and I'd far rather be bothered and bewildered than bored. I've long admired Thomas Hampson as an intelligent singer, but I confess that he brought richer sonority and more strength to the role of of Macbeth than I had anticipated. He contributed a great deal of beautiful singing, and also, fearlessly, ugly singing. The introspective, sweet-toned "Pietà, rispetto, amore" would have been enough alone to convince me that the growling or barking of Macbeth's madness and tyranny was intentional. The character of Macbeth may be anything but consistent, but Hampson made him sympathetic, suggesting that his truest self was to be found in the elegant legato singing of his opening and closing scenes, in the persona of a thoughtful man of generous impulses, forced into war. In (ahem) greeting his wife, he is already trying to push the disturbing prophecies of the weird sisters from his mind; it is her ambition which seizes them as the promise of political advancement. It was so clear that Hampson's Macbeth, in his lucid moments, wished it all undone, that I wished they'd left in "Mal per me che m'affidai." The chorus was triumphant (and Macduff, echoing The Cranes are Flying, adopts a refugee child) but I was far from sure that a similar cycle of violence wasn't just going to break out again without the baritone. And one cycle of violence was quite enough for the evening.

Curtain call photos:

Pittas (Macduff)

Groissböck (Banquo)

Michael (Lady Macbeth)

Hampson (Macbeth)

Cast and conductor


  1. Nice review! I think tho that the refugee child at the end was Fleance, son of Banquo and father of the future Stuart line that will be one day greater than the short Macbeth dynasty.


    1. Thanks, Paul! I'd thought that Fleance was the child in the red scarf and Macduff's waif entirely different, but I could be wrong (so many trench coats to keep track of) and your interpretation is certainly tidier.

  2. Hate to comment and run (am sure FDPL is relieved) but the München Macbeth really much more edifying. I had all sorts of doubts about this at the Met. Typically, the FDLP gave a most descriptive and perceptive review and I was really glad to hear Thomas Hampson sounding as good as <I've heard him in at least 4 years. He along with Noseda were the principal advantages at the Met.

    However, Frau Michael, for all her many charms and who was certainly not dull was absolutely blown away byTatjana Serjan who sang the role beautifully (moreso than on the Salzburg broadcast from last year. A rich tone, beautiful Verdian line, expressive prasing and good coloratura combined with a dramatic portrayal that I found even more compelling than that of Michael made her Lady one of the highlights of my operatic year. FWIW she was startlingly sexy in the entertaining Kusej production (which featured Michael at its premiere).

    Honorable mention also to the excellent Banquo of Christoff Fisschesser altough Gröisbock was very good as well. The latter was also the Gremin in the oridinal run of the Onegin which I'll be seeing later and which is being live streamed.

    This has been a rather spartan operatic year for me so far but going on a bit of a binge this weekend.

    1. Aber deine Kommentare sehe ich doch immer gerne. Glad to hear that you also heard Hampson in such fine form and found him so satisfactory. Sounds as though Serjan had all the desiderata; enviable indeed! Fischesser is, alas, a singer I have yet to hear live. Hope the operatic binge was rewarding.


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