As Lady Macbeth At Met, Netrebko Fearless Sensation

Soprano Anna Netrebko, in her role debut as Lady Macbeth in Verdi's Shakespearean opera 'Macbeth,' at the Metropolitan Opera. (Production photos by Marty Sohl)
Soprano Anna Netrebko, in her role debut as Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s Shakespearean opera ‘Macbeth,’ at the Met.
(Metropolitan Opera production photos by Marty Sohl)
By Susan Brodie

NEW YORK –  Anna Netrebko brought an audience of both fans and connoisseurs to its feet in her Metropolitan Opera role debut as Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s Shakespearean opera, which opened Sept. 24.  Supported by a veteran cast, she gave a dramatically thrilling and vocally satisfying performance in one of Verdi’s most difficult soprano roles.

Adrian Noble’s dark and incoherently updated staging of Macbeth (sets and costumes by Mark Thompson, lighting by Jean Kalman, choreography by Sue Lefton) was first given in 2007. It mixes different decades of the 20th century — the witches are 1950s bag ladies, frolicking eccentrically with handbags that light up their faces in moments of prophecy. Others are harder to place, with ’30s evening gowns, a World War II field vehicle, and modern leather jackets and do-rags confounding the mix. Round Art Deco-ish columns moved in and out to delineate interior spaces, but luridly lit divination bubbles were more reminiscent of ’60s science fiction. No matter — as this month’s referendum on Scottish independence reminded us, power struggles and moves for autonomy aren’t exclusive to a single era.

Anna Netrebko as Lady Macbeth and Željko Lučić as Macbeth.
Anna Netrebko as Lady Macbeth and Željko Lučić as Macbeth.

But the big story was Netrebko’s first “big” Verdi at the Met. The charismatic Russian soprano, a protégé of Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, was a Merola apprentice in 1996 at the San Francisco Opera, where she sang many of her early U.S. performances. In 1998, she was first heard at the Met as part of the the Kirov Opera tour. Her Met company debut was in 2002, as Natasha in Prokofiev’s War and Peace; her soaring, nimble voice and Audrey Hepburn looks made her an instant success.

Netrebko’s early Met career featured her in “ina” roles — Zerlina, Adina, Norina —  and as other soubrettes: Musetta, Gilda, Lucia, and Juliette. To some her bel canto singing wasn’t always successful, but her stage personality was irresistible and over time her coloratura work became more precise and disciplined.

Meanwhile she was racking up bigger roles elsewhere: Donna Anna in Berlin and in Salzburg, where her sensational Violetta in the “little red dress” in La Traviata in 2005 boosted her international profile. By decade’s end she was moving into heavier bel canto (Anna Bolena), Puccini (Mimi and Manon Lescaut) and Tchaikovsky (Tatyana in Eugene Onegin and Iolanta). Her lyric Verdi phase has been in development for some time, and this summer’s Salzburg Il Trovatore — click here for excerpts —  allowed an international audience the chance to admire her maturing voice and a new gravitas added to the charismatic presence that has made her a star. Lady Macbeth allows her a new dimension: “Finally, I can be myself,” she told an interviewer.

[Watch and listen: The Oct. 11 performance of the Met Macbeth is set for live in HD broadcast via cinemas worldwide. Audio of the Oct. 15 performance is to be streamed live on the Met’s website. The Oct. 3 and Oct. 15 performances are scheduled for live satellite radio broadcast on Sirius.]

Lady Macbeth recounts deathly acts as she walks in her sleep.
Lady Macbeth recounts deathly acts as she walks in her sleep.

Netrebko’s first aria, “Vieni t’affretta,” laid Lady Macbeth’s character bare. Awakened  by a servant bearing a letter announcing her husband’s first promotion, she is feline, feral, her raw ambition barely disguised by her baby face and voluptuous body. The sound, too, is voluptuous and seductive: A listener feels her generosity and total involvement in the moment. If her first sound was a bit blowsy, with an unattractively wide vibrato, she controlled the voice to sing firm lines, fearless at the top and incisive at the bottom. Her mastery of breath makes the voice seem bigger than it is, and Met principal conductor Fabio Luisi’s careful support ensured that she was never covered by the orchestra.

For the Act III brindisi, Netrebko’s years of bel canto allowed her to lighten the sound to achieve flexibility for the ornate lines. The Act IV sleepwalking scene was mesmerizing, although it showed that the role remains a work in progress: The lower-middle voice is not her comfort zone. It’s also likely that she isn’t yet quite at ease “sleep” walking over a row of padded chairs. Overall, his was by far the best incarnation, vocally and dramatically, of the Lady since this production opened.

Željko Lučić's Macbeth, with blood on his hands.
Željko Lučić’s Macbeth, with blood on his hands.

Željko Lučić’s Macbeth has grown in authority and complexity since he headlined the production premiere. As Macbeth became murderously ruthless and descended into madness, the baritone’s beautiful voice grew more harsh in tandem with his increasingly agitated demeanor. This Macbeth was driven by his own ambition as well as his wife’s lust for power.

Tenor Joseph Calleja, in the small role of Macduff, sounded almost incongruously vigorous in his Act IV aria for someone who had just lost his family, but “Ah, la paterno mano,” beautiful and full of pathos, was warmly received.

As Banquo, René Pape represented luxury casting.
As Banquo, and his bloodied ghost, René Pape represented luxury casting.

As Banquo, René Pape represented luxury casting (he’s in town to sing a Met recital and Sarastro). His voice took some time to warm up, but his burnished bass sounded glorious by his Act II aria, “Come dal ciel precipita.” Later, he appeared especially menacing as the bloodied ghost who terrifies Macbeth in the middle of the banquet.

The chorus in Macbeth has an important role in the drama. The witches’ prophecies propel Macbeth first into action and later into madness, and the soldiers’ mutiny sets off the denouement. The Met chorus was excellent, highlighting rhythmic details I missed hearing in the previous Met outings. The witches especially were a vibrant presence, and the touching Act IV opening lament of the displaced populace evoked the more famous “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco. Luisi, in his debut with this score, led a clean and transparent if somewhat reserved performance. While he drew colorful and often powerful sound from the splendid orchestra and brought out Verdian details, there was a sense of caution that perhaps will lessen after a few more outings. He should listen to the Lady, who shows no such inhibitions.

Macbeth continues at the Met through Oct.  27. Click here for more information.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!