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The old clichés are out. The new devices are in.

The time is now-ish, and the unit set – a dark and empty circle surrounded by stylised trees – serves many purposes. Pillars rotate, props come and go, symbols descend. There is much fussing with chairs. Beds are to stand on. The witches appear as frumpy housewives who wield menacing handbags. Military thugs drive a jeep and flourish rifles. Bathrobes, pyjamas and trench coats serve as standard gear. The befuddled protagonist and his lurid Lady do a lot of dry humping.

This is Macbeth as staged for the Met by Adrian Noble, with noble help from Mark Thompson (sets and costumes) and Jean Kalman (lighting). Some of the dramatic interpolations actually illuminate the source. Some merely obfuscate.

With James Levine sustaining both momentum and tension in the pit – no easy task – the musical traditions remained essentially undisturbed on Monday. Other conductors may define more reflective breadth in the score. Few convey as much ardour.

At best the cast was splendid. At worst it was, er, interesting. The centre of attention had to be the Lady Macbeth, Maria Guleghina (who took over from the originally scheduled Andrea Gruber). In a possible flight of hyperbole, Verdi wrote that the desperate heroine should sound “rough, hoarse, gloomy and diabolical”. Guleghina apparently took the instruction too seriously at the outset. The Ukrainian soprano went wild, disfiguring the line with screams, scoops, slides and painful approximations. Still, one had to admire her guts, even when she danced a blowsy csárdás during the brindisi.

Fortunately, she calmed down for a neatly gauged mad scene (formerly known as the sleepwalking scene and presented here as a duet for diva and swaying lamp). Zeljko Lucic complemented her as a Macbeth, aka Macbetto, of gratifying force, focus and finesse. Never mind the top tones attacked from below. John Relyea’s opulent basso ennobled Banquo’s plaints, and Dimitri Pittas’ bright tenor sailed through Macduff’s aria.

So much for brushing up one’s Shakespeare – and Verdi.
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