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VERDI: Macbeth, Blu-ray (2015)

Lots to recommend in this opera. It’s a keeper.

VERDI: Macbeth, Blu-ray (2015)
Cast: Anna Netrebko, Zeljko Lucic, René Pape, Joseph Calleja, The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus.
Studio: Deutsche Grammophon [10/30/15] (Dist. by Universal)
Director: Fabio Luisi
Video: 1.77:1 1080p HD Color for 16:9 screens
Audio: DTS-HD 5.1, PCM Stereo
Subtitles: English, German, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, French, Italian
Length: 155 minutes
Extras: Backstage at the Met – interviews
Ratings: Audio: ****½ Video: ****½ Overall ****½

Who would have thought the old play had so much music in it? Unjustly considered one of Verdi’s second tier operas (just below his other Shakespearean operas, Otello and Falstaff), Macbeth nevertheless boasts excellent duets, solos, and several well-timed ensemble pieces. Yet it is rarely performed and even more rarely recorded. A film version (1987) transferred to DVD (2007) with Shirley Verrett and Leo Nucci is eminently splendid, with its simian topless witches (acrobats perhaps?), a musty Godfrey of Bouillon castle, and lots of blue-gray lighting. It set the bar very high, but lately it’s begun to creak in this age of HD and RF mikes.

As Macbeth, Zeljko Lucic does a decent job, particularly at the beginning as he totes his AK-47 and milks the witches for info. His baritone voice blends with René Pape’s bass in the ominous aria “Due vaticini.” Of course the real drama occurs later, when Anna Netrebko’s Lady Macbeth sings her double aria “Vieni! t’affretta” – you’re hooked unless you have ice water in your veins. She’s become voluptuous in recent years and the wardrobe department has put that to good use. She’s a bleached blond this time, perhaps a tribute to Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), also about a woman inciting a man to commit murder. Her singing is consistently dramatic, and her acting veers towards excess but never quite plunges into it. Their interactions with each other are riveting, both alone and in the public hall where Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost. Unlike Verrett, who sang both soprano and mezzo-soprano roles, Netrebko’s range is not so broad. Yet her rendition of “Una macchia” (“Out, damned spot”) is easily her best scene in the opera. Considered one of the young Verdi’s best solo creations, this aria is performed under a swinging lamp, which she snatches up as a prop. As she veers from madness to lucidity, you may consider playing this scene again and again. It helps that Luisi’s orchestral accompaniment is flawless. The sound is much better in this Blu-ray version than the older filmed version – how could it not be?

Unfortunately, as live performance, there is that audience applause. Lots. Am I only one who thinks this intrusive? Why is it necessary to include audience applause in any performance video? Do we have to be told the singer has just done a stellar job? Shouldn’t we already know that? And when was the last time you saw an opera performer even acknowledge applause, say, with a demure curtsy? If this presentation had eliminated all applause, and maybe even the final curtain call, we wouldn’t have just saved some minutes. We would also have avoided unnecessary disruption. So consider canning the applause in the future, Metropolitan Opera. Either that, or record the dress rehearsal.

Along with Macbeth and Banquo, I too must address the witches, my favorite representatives of evil, darkness, & chaos in all of Shakespeare. Instead of topless scavengers, goth schoolgirls, voodoo priestesses, or drugged hippies, we get women dressed as 1930s shoppers, complete with baggy dresses and kids in tow. They are not “normal,” however. (One of them lewdly greets Macbeth and Banquo with open legs). About thirty of them waddle around the stage, wielding their purses like grimoires. But perhaps this sartorial innovation’s not as odd as it seems. Drawings in Holinshed’s Chronicles, one of Shakespeare’s sources, portray them as wearing elaborate dresses and hairstyles. With so many actresses, this witches’ chorus is far more resonant than in previous performances I’ve seen. Lots to recommend in this opera. It’s a keeper.

—Peter Bates

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