Macbeth was Giuseppe Verdi’s first foray into the timeless oeuvre of Shakespeare, his favorite dramatist, as a source for opera. After long contemplating a setting of King Lear, which he never realized, the composer’s engagement with the Bard culminated in his last two operas, Otello and Falstaff (the latter based on The Merry Wives of Windsor with material from Henry IV). This season, the Royal Opera revives Phyllida Lloyd’s 2002 production of Verdi’s first encounter with Shakespeare, featuring the superstar Anna Netrebko as the troubled Scottish warlord’s scheming spouse. Falstaff will follow in the summer season.
Premiering in 1847, Macbeth sits awkwardly toward the end of Verdi’s early period. The musical forms he favored in his younger years are still audible, but much of the characterization anticipates the fuller development of his dramatic sensibilities in later works. Verdi would likely agree that one might expect no less from Shakespeare. Indeed, the composer wanted the singers who created Macbeth’s leading roles to be so real-to-life that he praised their ugly looks as a decisive factor in casting. Eighteen years after the premiere, Verdi revisited the opera to insert more “advanced” musical forms, including Lady Macbeth’s seductive aria of guilt (“La luce langue”) and the expressive Act III vengeance duet (“Ora di morte”), which in this production ends with Macbeth slashing the throats of Macduff’s doomed children.
Lloyd’s production imbues the work with a film-noirish effect. The sets are based on walls of black blocks that can slide open in a variety of directions to accommodate entrances and exits and changes of scene. Their main feature, however, is to serve as a background for judicious light projections that allow for shadow, close-ups, and contrasts pregnant with dramatic insight. As the Macbeths contemplate their acts of malice or reflect on what’s done, we can observe their moods in permutations that evoke The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity. Occasionally characters are showcased in a gilded cage, both highlighting vital scenes and suggesting their imprisonment by fate and prophecy.
Anna Netrebko is certainly the most compelling singer before the public today, and her practiced Lady Macbeth offered few causes for disappointment. Already in her repertoire for a number of years now as her first Verdi role, the interpretation has only benefited from further exploration of the composer’s repertoire (including now Aida and Leonara in Il Trovatore). The voice has become darker and thicker since Netrebko’s bel canto years, with a burnished quality that allows for the most satisfying exploration of Lady Macbeth’s essential lower range that I have ever heard. Netrebko’s expression of the part’s intense sensuality was subtle without lapsing into somnolence, seductive but not cheaply sexual. One might have liked a more attenuated line on the ethereally high D-flat that ends the sleepwalking scene, but the overall effect was stunning.
It is fashionable to deride Netrebko’s husband Yusif Eyvazov as a hanger-on, but such snipes hardly do justice to this fine singer’s true talent. He sang a vivid, compelling Macduff and never lacked for stage presence or vocal ardor. The Serbian baritone Željko Lucić continues to triumph in the title role. The study only gets stronger as time goes on, and his comfort with the subtleties of the Verdi baritone range has culminated in remarkable growth. I first heard his Macbeth in Salzburg in 2011 and doff my hat to one of the most striking progressions in music drama I have witnessed in my critical career. His portrayal is frightening yet insecure, menacing yet sympathetic. The final arias “Pietà, rispetto, amore” and “Mal per me” were models of pathos. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo sang a steady Banco (Banquo), a noble yet helpless victim of the witches’ prophecy. Over the past two seasons, the Royal Opera has benefited from the engagement of William Spaulding as its chorus master. After an impressive career at Deutsche Oper Berlin, he brings an extraordinary talent to the London stage. Macbeth’s choruses do not enjoy the intensity of those in later Verdi works, but in this performance they were terrifyingly lethal. In the pit, Covent Garden’s music director Antonio Pappano brought more energy to the score than he has to any other Italian opera I have ever heard him conduct.