The good word on National Opera's Macbeth, which opened this evening, is that it's not the kind of pallid, 98-pound Verdi some of us have come to dread. (I remember once in a PhD program in a kingdom far away, a t.a. with bad boundaries suggested to me "you might want to try using your whole ass next time." That's what a lot of Verdi productions have made me feel like saying in the last few seasons.) The conducting is full-blooded and Italianate, and the singing, whose glories and belly-flops I'll get around to in a sec, is never less than balls-out.
The bad word is, unless you poke your eyes out, you have to watch it, too. The designer of the thing, whose name I resolutely decline to look up in the program, has a vocabulary whose richness is matched only by the Smurfs. Now, if we've talked at all, you and I, you probably know that high on the list of things I think should reassign someone's profession from director/designer to perhaps lead usher is the overuse of scrims. Through a haze of scantly diminished fury, I recall a Chicago Dutchman which took place I believe 100% behind scrims, and they didn't do a thing to contain the sound of Malfitano's voice*, so really I never figured out what they were there for.
If I thought long and hard, I could come up with isolated uses of a scrim that worked out well. But you don't want to wait while I do that, so let's just say generally I find them to be a lazy lunge at an effect that automatically diminishes my enjoyment of what I'm watching. Now, just as Mrs. Parker was able to think of something that could write worse than a Theodore Dreiser**, I have just been helped to come up with what I like less than an entire opera behind scrims.
That would be an entire opera behind scrims onto which inscrutable, frequently unintentionally funny images are projected, almost throughout. Absolutely headache-inducing. Subtle, also--I may be wrong, but my feminine intuition tells me the incessant use of red might bear some kind of semiotically complex relation to blood. I don't know. Don't quote me. The program makes mention of "new media," which is a scream, since the media implicated would seem to be 1) computer design, which ain't that new, 2) projection, whose newness would be a shock to Alban Berg among others, and 3) thoughtless, schematic story-telling. Maybe that last one is the innovation. Stupid is the new smart, isn't it?
I'm dwelling on this because it stinks, and because it at times diminished my enjoyment of Verdi's most richly characterized score. (Really do think so. Can't back it up.) What saved it was a lot of good music-making of different kinds. It wasn't, vocally, the strongest cast you could come up with, in fact. Other than Vitaly Kowaljow, whose Banquo was beyond reproach, a mixed bag.
Paoletta Marrocu is banking on a number of things, I think. She has a pretty powerful voice, she's a good actress in a way that's low-key but not afraid of a few campy gestures, and she's willing to put it on the line. A good example of all of this was her sleepwalking scene, nuanced throughout and physically well played, vocally ragged here and there, worst of all a shout of a c#, the note you should probably just leave out if you don't really have it, but never tentative and overall convincing. Vocally, La Luce Language worked out better--it ends at B and doesn't ask you to dip into chest as much. But it was the sleepwalking scene that affected my heart-rate. Her technique sounds a little crazy and I'm not sure she won't blow it out, but if she doesn't, I look forward to hearing more of her.
Lado Ataneli feels like someone I go back a long way with, if only because I heard him before his Met career began, in Cincinnati singing Nabucco to Flanigan's off-the-hook Abby (at the time I termed it "extravagantly dykey," which I kind of still like.) There's no way around it: he's a singer of uneven quality. Some things work, and some don't. There was a bit of an ugly crack tonight that he caught quickly, and a lot of over-taxed sounding singing in "Pieta, Rispetto, Amore, and other abstract Italian nouns," though it warranted the most noise this fairly quiet audience made in response to anything.
You know why nobody does Macbeth much, don't you? It's not because it's bad luck. It's because the tenor part is so negligible. John Matz sounded nervous but stylistically dead-on as MacDuff. So but the overall deal is that everyone had some flaws, and the big picture was an exciting, worthy reading of let me tell you again how much I love Macbeth, which I love. Really there was nothing wrong with the whole evening that a long ladder and an exacto knife couldn't cut down to size. All eyes (well, all of mine) are on the Met next season, wondering what the new production will be like, whether Zeljko Lucic who made a decent impression in Gioconda wil shine, and what the hell Gruber is going to do with the part of the role that lies in the curdly part of her voice. Time will tell.
Believe it or not, at 2 tomorrow, I will duck into Kennedy Center again, for Jenny, Jenny, I got your number (867-5309)...
*Customary snark mitigation: her Kundry? Loved it, with no reservations. She was my first Lady Macbeth as well, and was riveting. Oh and tomorrow I'm hearing her Kostelnicka, and look forward to it. Senta was just the wrong idea.
**Two Theodore Dreisers