The cause celebre-conscious opera crowd in New York always has to convulse itself in at least one fit of operatic outrage each year. This season's opportunity came in November when the Metropolitan Opera debuted its new version of Verdi's "Macbeth," directed by Sir Peter Hall. It was greeted with jeers and booing and struck some commentators as just about the last word in indulgent directorial excess. It became the production to love to hate.
Thus it was all the more shocking when the Met brought "Macbeth" to the Kennedy Center Opera House Saturday night to discover that what Sir Peter, who is the director of England's National Theater, hath wrought is largely a restoration to the opera of its theatrical traditions.
This "Macbeth" is a healthy corrective to the neo-Bayreuth abstract, single-unit-set approach--as in the Washington Opera's recent performance. The Macbeths' banquet hall looks just like an Inverness banquet hall, the witches' cavern is craggy, Birnham Wood is wind-swept and the park in which Banquo is assassinated is an enchanting silhouetted grove overlooking a broad loch. By contrast with the abstract versions, anyone who remotely knows Shakespeare's play can tell at almost any time what's going on in Sir Peter's "Macbeth" without mastering a syllable of Italian--revolutionary as that concept may seem. Sir Peter isn't averse to abstraction; after all, he did "Amadeus." But in "Macbeth" he is given more of a story to tell.
The performance could hardly be improved today. Sherrill Milnes and Renata Scotto have played Macbeth and Lady Macbeth together so often that they have become seemingly intuitive foils to each other--her compulsive ruthlessness and determination pitted against his more deliberate manner, with its trace of kingly majesty.
Scotto's Lady Macbeth was consciously animalistic. She sang the cabaletta, "Or tutti sorgete," rolling around on the ground. Her phallic gestures with the scepter and later with the sword spoke for themselves. From some singers, some of this might have been a little too much, but in the case of Scotto it has the positive effect of directing attention from her natural sweetness of demeanor. You have to be made to forget that you know her as Butterfly or Mimi.
Scotto also lacks the natural dark, hard sound for Lady Macbeth, but she always has been masterly at coloring her voice, so that at least you get some illusion of hardness, and her solid low register, combined with her skill at descending to it without swooping, was an enormous asset. The wobbly top that has developed in her voice was not much of a problem, because the part does not force her to sing fortissimo highs very often. The sleep-walking scene was a triumph, both dramatically and vocally--even though Sir Peter had her walk on stage and then sit while she sang.
Milnes' voice is that rare thing--a natural Macbeth voice. It is an exhausting role, but Milnes showed no strain. His sonority was rich as usual, and the tone was spectacularly even. His final monologue deservedly drew the mightiest ovation of the night. The characterization was not so intense as Scotto's, but, given her manipulativeness, that had a certain logic.
At the next level, the casting was almost as strong. Paul Plishka was a rich and noble Banquo. Timothy Jenkins sang Macduff's aria with feeling and beauty of tone until the very end, when frays began to appear.
"Macbeth" is a choral opera, and the Met chorus showed its customary discipline. The great refugee chorus was taken very slowly, without any loss of intensity.
The seemingly inexhaustible James Levine (he is conducting eight of the 14 performances in the Met's Washington run) held together the manifold complexities of "Macbeth" with remarkable assurance. Levine is so fine a conductor that this level of music-making begins to become predictable--but that makes it no less extraordinary.
John Bury designed the splendid sets and costumes. "Macbeth" will be repeated tomorrow night.
With that all said, still there is a major theatrical miscalculation by Sir Peter in two scenes of this production, both involving the witches. He chooses to have an enormous number of them, maybe 60 or 70, and that, in itself, is justifiable, but as they get wound up in Act III, they become an orgiastic horde, as if they were leftovers from the Venusburg in "Tannha user," which the Met also did this season. A little of this might be all right, but long before the witches are finished they come to seem overwhelmingly gratuitous. And Sir Peter compounds this error by casting Hecate, the goddess of the night, with a dancer who is nude except for a G string and an illuminated tiara.
Sir Peter is directing Solti's new "Ring" at Bayreuth this summer. No topless Rhinemaidens, please.