The scary history of the Scottish Play extends to opera, at least, the Metropolitan Opera. “Macbeth” was, after all, the vehicle that, due to sked problems, got Maria Callas fired by general manager Rudolph Bing in 1959. The follow-up production, directed by Peter Hall in his company debut, saw him booed off the stage in 1982. And a few seasons later, that same ghastly staging inspired one audience member to jump to his death from the balcony. How nice to report that the curse has finally been lifted with Adrian Noble’s new staging.
Not everyone at Monday night’s premiere would agree with that assessment. There was some booing amidst the applause, but then the Met audience is a pretty conservative crowd and doesn’t like its Verdi masterpieces updated, transplanted or otherwise reinterpreted in any radical fashion.
Noble’s “Macbeth,” according to production notes, places the action “in a non-specific post-World War II Scotland,” which, in fact, looks more like some fascisto Slavic state. And to reinforce that interpretation, we have Zelijko Lucic and Maria Guleghina singing the two lead roles. They are a great Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but, before we hear a note from them, the opera dictates that the witches entertain us for more than a few bars.
The question of what to do with the witches must drive any opera director to distraction. Shakespeare’s words are all sinister darkness, but Verdi gives them a jaunty, almost impish, spin. Noble follows Verdi, and, in his most audacious move, conjures up a troupe of macabre-looking housewives, with kids in tow, wielding big plastic purses as weapons of minor, if not mass, destruction.
Costume and set designer Mark Thompson sets these shrews, as well as everything else to come, against a unit set of scraggly, leafless trees with a bottomless black sky above. If Roald Dahl had directed “Macbeth,” this is what he might have done.
Elsewhere, the updates meet with variable success. The sumptuously costumed banquet is a ball worth attending, but somehow contempo army fatigues never quite mesh with the music. Then again, Noble avoids making the battle scenes look downright ridiculous — a possible first at the Met — and Lucic may be the only operatic Macbeth ever to fell an opponent by executing a pretty lethal jump-kick.
Where Noble’s interpretation truly illuminates the opera is in his work with Lucic, who only last year made his Met debut in “La Gioconda.” Not to detract from Guleghina’s sizable achievement here, but this “Macbeth” restores the center of the opera to its rightful place, which is Macbeth himself.
Too often Lady Macbeth’s showy arias dominate, and Verdi certainly gives her most of the night’s showstoppers. Guleghina doesn’t disappoint. She is an unstinting performer, and if every piece of coloratura isn’t exactly in place in her opening “Vieni!, t’affretta!,” she delivers a note perfect “Brindisi” — at turns, ferocious, amusing and heartbreaking.
Lucic breaks ranks with most Macbeths to offer an exceptionally introspective, elegantly sung Macbeth. The choristers may be right when they call him a “monster,” but he’s a tragic monster. When pressed, Lucic can pump up the volume to match Guleghina, but more often he impresses by being unafraid, as well as perfectly capable, to sing on a whisper of despair.
Elsewhere the opera hinges on only a couple of voices, and John Relyea presents a sturdy Banquo while, as Macduff, Dimitri Pittas impresses with his exceedingly bright tenor.
The singers are the life blood of “Macbeth,” and conductor James Levine sets those juices boiling with his fiery interpretation.