Saturday, October 11, 2014

Verdi's Macbeth at the Movies: It Doesn't Get Much Better than This

You wanna talk High Culture? It doesn't get much higher than this.

Start with a great play by the incomparable William Shakespeare. Macbeth is a study of the effects of murderous ambition on the assassins. Macbeth and his lady are so mesmerized by dreams of power that they convince themselves and each other that they can get away with murder. And they do. But, instead of leading to exultation, the psychological results are Hellish.

Add a powerful score by Verdi, a composer who matches Shakespeare in stature. The music perfectly conveys the intense emotions of the characters, and the story is paced out so that each of the characters has long, thoughtful arias at critical stages—arias that illuminate Shakespeare's soliloquies.

To make that work, get one of the greatest contemporary sopranos, Anna Netrebko, to play Lady Macbeth. I've seen her play several roles, but she just totally inhabits this one. She relishes expressing any human's natural aggressiveness, but by her final scene, her devastation is also completely convincing. Her singing in this virtuoso role is technically brilliant, and her voice is a rich pleasure. She is receiving well-deserved raves.

Provide her with a great supporting cast of singer/actors, especially the baritone who plays Macbeth: Željko Lučić. Throw in a huge, well-trained chorus, and an orchestra that is recognized around the world as one of the best. Don't forget a conductor who seems to pull the music and the mood right out of the musicians, Fabio Luisi.

All this was combined into a fabulous musical performance by the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, which shares some of its performances with the world, literally, by transmitting them live in high definition to local movie theaters, including Cupertino Square AMC. The sound may not be as wonderful as in the opera house, but the close-up views of the singing actors are priceless. Yet the price was only $22 for seniors; in the opera house it might be 10 times that much. The lyrics are helpfully translated in subtitles; one of the pleasures is trying to match the Italian with the English. Before the opening, views of the New York audience entering the beautiful opera house raise the excitement level. Between acts, backstage cameras show the crew changing the set. During the intermission, a beautiful soprano—in this case Anita Rachvelishvili—interviews the singers, right off the stage, still panting, as well as the conductor, so the audience feels completely engaged.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about Verdi's opera, and especially about the Met's current production, is that it enhanced my understanding of the play. Shakespeare depicts how superstition, fantasy, and lust spur ambition, and then he shows in devastating detail that if you grab power through violence and deceit, you end up fearing the same treatment from others. He shows how quickly overweening fantasy can turn into overwhelming fear. He shows that guilt is inescapable; murder of another person is murder of the self. It's pretty wonderful that the Met can pull together all the disparate elements of opera—so mechanical in some ways, so technical, so phony—to produce a show that is thrilling both as music and as literature, and deliver it all to your local theater at an affordable price.