A Blessed Scottish Opera?

Meet the Macbeths, photo @ Marty Sohl
In theater there's this thing called "the curse of Macbeth." Really horrible, rotten, bad things are supposed to happen when Shakespeare's play is performed. Performers believe this as much as biology teachers believe that Jamie Lee Curtis is intersex. Some performers have taken this superstition to the extreme by referring to it only as the "Scottish play."

Verdi's Macbeth has an equally cursed performance history. It was arguments over an upcoming production of Macbeth that caused Rudolf Bing to fire Maria Callas. In 1988 a man named Bantcho Bantchevsky decided to kill himself by leaping to his death from the balcony of the Met during a performance of Macbeth. For awhile it looked like this revival of Macbeth was equally cursed. The highly anticipated pairing of Plácido Domingo and Anna Netrebko was clouded by allegations of sexual harassment by Domingo. Domingo sang the dress rehearsal but "withdrew" from performances a day before the run was to start. Željko Lučić went on the first night with no rehearsal. Then the second performance had a last minute throw-on as Željko Lučić (the cover for Domingo) fell sick. A Sirius XM audio from the opening night sounded very rough. Everyone sounded like they had had a couple of sleepless nights.

Lucic and Netrebko, photo @ Marty Sohl
However the performance I attended (the fifth) was ... blessed? Everything just seemed settled, most voices were working at their best, and it was overall a really good performance of one of my favorite operas. If Porgy and Bess met my sky-high expectations and Manon did not quite live up to expectations, then Macbeth exceeded expectations.

For one, I don't think I've ever heard Željko Lučić sound so good in years. Maybe ever. The cloudy, wooly, colorless sound was not there, and neither was the dull interpretation. Lučić's two big arias "O lieto augurio" and "Pietà, rispetto, amore" were sung with a full-bodied tone and (unusual for him) committed acting. Lučić used his slightly hunched body shape to create a haunted, introverted leader who is both afraid of and attracted to power. He also raves at Banquo's ghost with a convincing terror.

Netrebko, photo @ Ken Howard
Anna Netrebko started off the night in bumpy voice. Her voice has changed since 2014 when she scored one of her biggest career triumphs in this role.  She's now at the point where if she isn't in good voice, it's obvious to the audience. The vibrato loosens to the point of a wobble, the sound is harsh and pushed, and the voice does not move as fast as the music requires. The center of gravity in her voice is definitely now lower and her money notes are in her huge dark chest voice. Her top is no longer as easy and free.

In the recitative before "Vieni, t'affreta" she didn't quite make it to the high C. The aria and cabaletta itself were strangely underpowered, very approximate in both notes and pitches, with squally high notes, and the golf-clap applause reflected that. In the glorious act one concertato she dropped out for quite a few chunks, and didn't sing the optional D-flat that Anna Pirozzi apparently interpolated the other night.

But Netrebko warmed up to give a chilling, exciting "La luce langue" and then delivered a vocally excellent performance for the rest of the evening. She even trilled well in the Brindisi, and she almost never trills well. In her repeat of the Brindisi her voice rattled with rage against her distressed husband. Her Sleepwalking Scene is maybe the best I've heard her do it. The dark color of her voice fits this music well, and compared to 2014 she is less showy, quieter, more believably haunted. She capped "Una macchia" with a beautiful piano D-flat that earned her a well-deserved ovation.

Netrebko's interpretation of Lady Macbeth is rather campy but enjoyable. She glowers at the audience, shakes her hair, and randomly rolls around on the floor a lot. When her husband shows some weakness or hesitation she gives him two hard kicks in the rear. In the banquet she snarls at him to get himself together. Netrebko has said she really identifies with this role and it shows -- she looks like she's having fun out there.

On a shallow note Netrebko's husband Yusif Eyvasov has been posting about his workout regimen on Instagram and has lost a visible amount of weight. Netrebko also has lost weight. Still voluptuous, but she looks great with that diet/workout regimen that her husband is following.

Abdrazakov as Banquo, photo @ Ken Howard
Ildar Abdrazakov as Banquo gave the impression he often gives. He looks good, sounds decent, but doesn't have a resonant enough bass to sing the bass roles. Last time I heard this René Pape was Banquo and I missed his big, booming bass. Abdrazakov's big aria in the second act was enjoyable but not memorable.

Matthew Polenzani (Macduff) sang HIS showy aria "Ah, la paterno mano" with impeccable legato and musicality. Such a stylish tenor. The only issue is I just don't actually like the sound of his voice. It's not his problem, it's my problem. Judging from the loud ovation he got I was obviously alone.

 Adrian Noble's production, photo @ Ken Howard
It was a shock to see veteran tenor Giuseppe Filianoti in the brief role of Malcolm. The chorus was their usual excellent self; the orchestra less so. Marco Armiliato is the definition of a routinier conductor, and the brass sounded woefully out of tune at times. But he kept the evening running at a fast clip, and we got out earlier than the stated running time.

I really like Adrian Noble's 2007 production. Despite some nonsensical moments (the Sleepwalking Scene and the chairs) I find it evocative and effective. I love the dark trees in the background, the falling snow, the raggedy Oliver Twist-inspired costumes for the witches, even the mix-and-match military period where daggers go hand-in-hand with WWI-style rifles.

Three days ago Anna posted on Instagram that "today in the performance I was in a very bad mood."  She made a cryptic comment about how too many things in the world are not "perfect." Earlier when Lučić canceled she said "the curse of M is all over us." Tonight if she still felt the production was cursed it didn't show. During curtain calls she waved happily to the audience. Maybe the fifth time is the charm?

ETA: Here is a compilation of the many excellent "Una macchia" renditions over the years I made. Callas, Gencer, Galvany, Verrett, Sass, Dimitrova, Serjan, Monastyrska, Netrebko. All of them I think meet a standard of excellence.


  1. Interesting review, Ivy. Thanks. I listened opening night, and though Lucic sounded sick, I loved his interpretation, over the ether. I also loved Anna, and Matthew,, whose aria had me in tears. Two performances in the house...I LOVE how each performance is so different from one another. I saw Anna's post about the Scottish Opera's curse and thought, "Oh, that's Anna!" I wasn't sure et used, but for me, with intonation, and attitude, she owns this part, and I'm reveling in her middle range, which has blossomed. Second performance had a young, very good stand in for Lucic. I missed Lucic, but this you g baritone was good. It took a while in the first act, but as the opera progressed, he was very good, and Anna behaved. I've seen her otherwise,and practically left the House crying.

    My second performance in the house, Lucic still not 100%, but talk about owning a role. From his first notes, I had goosebumps. The color, the dynamics, the body language. Ildar, for me becomes better for me each performance. I see the last performance Saturday. I am sorry to see it end.

    1. Leslie, I was going to see the Pirozzi performance but things got in the way. I've listened to opening night and it sounds like everyone wasn't in good voice. I think every performance in the run has gotten better. On Sirius last week Lucic sounded sick still -- you could hear the phlegm. I bet by Saturday the whole performance will be gangbusters.

  2. Ivy,
    You are thoughtful and articulate and I enjoy your commentary. We were at the 2014 performance and indeed it may have been the highlight of her career. We will see it Sat eve and look forward to it. I struggle with her best works and include Il Trovatore, Aida, Anna Bolena and Capulets and Montague. She is astonishing and can cover up her small faults. She always challenges herself to new heights. Her verismo was fun, but not at this dramatic level. Thanks as always.

    1. I think Aida is another role that sits in the sweet spot of her voice. Wasn’t that crazy about her Tatiana.


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