Phyllida Lloyd's production, which originated in London but here is seen in a 2004 loaner to the Gran Teatre del Liceu, is a study in blackness with very sparing contrasts. Against static ebony backdrops, there are frequent splashes of red -- blood, in this very bloody opera, or its figurative equivalents (the witches sport red turbans, and a red-garbed Macduff vanquishes Macbeth at the close) -- and gold (the royal trappings have a cheap, unconvincing look that I suspect was intentional; it suggests the emptiness of ignoble achievement). Lady Macbeth is first seen stalking about her bedroom, alternately pacing in agitation and throwing herself onto a black bed. Maria Guleghina's honey-highlighted tresses have been teased and tossed into a mane-like coif, and this combines with the character's air of barely contained savagery and the squared pattern on the large black screen behind her to suggest a caged lioness. The cage, of course, is Lady Macbeth's deprivation of the power to which she believes she and her husband are entitled. Fate soon leaves that door ajar for her, but the royal thrones are surrounded with a much smaller cage (albeit one lacquered in the above-mentioned gilt), from which Banquo's ghost hangs and leers in Macbeth's hallucinations. In Lady Macbeth's last scene, that in which she wilts under the weight of her guilt and malfeasance, the proud mane of her first scene has gone limp and tangled, in a kind of follicular bookend effect.
At points when there are few good options outside of the realm of hackneyed operatic blocking (e.g., stentorian baritone/soprano passages that require both singers to face the audience), the director seems to have looked for ways to choreographically enliven the proceedings so as not to succumb entirely. The minimalist sets allow for great ease of transitions. Objects glide on and off the stage, people emerge from or disappear into shadows, scenes bleed and blur into one another; it has something of the fluidity of a coma dream. Only in the later going does Lloyd's severe treatment begin to seem monotonous and dramatically jumbled (to no good effect, the Macbeths remain on stage, in their twin beds, to observe the scene with Macduff and the oppressed people), and the quality of her bold emendations falls off in the second half. Having the witches interfere at key points -- one presenting the crown to Macbeth, two others helping to effect Fleance's escape -- is intriguing; more banal is a sequence in which the witches rouse Macbeth from a faint by presenting a vision of the Macbeths sharing a double bed, doting on a number of small children. When the vision passes, the bed separates into the distantly spaced twin beds the barren couple actually occupies. In this literally dark staging, spotlighting is used in ways that are both helpful and imaginative, and the video direction and transfer are superb.
Between them, the two leads provide the makings of one great performance. Maria Guleghina is a stage presence of fierce authority and self-confidence, with an expressive face that is ideal for this medium (the play of emotions on her face in "La luce langue" is riveting). There are moments of musical eloquence to match. Her handling of Lady Macbeth's interview of her husband following the murder of Duncan is a good example, particularly the lines in which she asks him if he heard other voices. A true singing actress, Guleghina realizes and exploits the possibilities of this musically quite unimportant passage, and the effect is chilling. The extent to which one can appreciate the things she does well dramatically -- and there are many -- will depend on one's tolerance for her vocal shortcomings. When a phrase requires a sudden leap from one register to another, she consistently is in poor balance (often, the latter note will barely be audible); the highest notes, though ample and piercing enough, frequently fall short of the correct pitch (a problem in both the concluding Act I concertato and the duet that follows Macbeth's second encounter with the witches); and she is not the most facile recorded exponent of this role, often sounding hard-pressed and near the end of her tether. Too, listeners who have heard Lady Macbeths with solid bel canto grounding will know what they are missing in the brindisi. This is a piece in which clusters of notes of short value add up to larger gestures; a Callas or a Cossotto could give each of the individual notes as well as the cumulative gesture their proper due. Guleghina's intentions are there, but her technique only allows her to approximate this kind of writing with smears. Her most polished singing is saved for the sleepwalking scene. Carlos Alvarez's strengths and weaknesses are in direct opposition to Guleghina's; the music holds no terrors for him, and his singing is smooth and attractive, but as ever, he is a rather stolid, blunt presence. In fairness to him, more expressive singing actors have only been able to get so much from this role; Verdi and Piave simply gave the Lord less clay for molding than they gave the Lady.
Bass Roberto Scandiuzzi is more together here than I have heard him in recent years -- less recent performances than this one have documented a widening wobble, and the most pleasant musical surprise on the DVD is his relatively secure and steady Banquo. That the tenor role of Macduff is listed as a comprimario part does not get the singing of Bergonzi, Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras, and Shicoff (all of whom have sung it on recordings) out of one's ears, to say nothing of illustrious tenors who have recorded the aria alone. This puts Marco Berti, rather colorless and strident in tone, and bringing the last note of the aria to its conclusion with a sort of heroic gulp, in a tough position. But his vocal equipment, more than that of the aforementioned superstars, is consistent with what one should reasonably expect to hear in a role of this size and importance; as such, he is adequate. (I do not have at present to review him in a role such as Radames, which he also has sung in major theaters. Times are tough.)
Recorded sound is more flattering to the voices than to the orchestra, which lacks resonance; however, the miking in the pit may be *too* good in one respect. Some secondary orchestral parts that conductors tend to downplay in balances are heard quite clearly here, to the point of competition with what usually covers them, and their banality does not benefit from such sharp relief. (Vivid though much of the opera is, at this "early middle" point in his composing career, Verdi was still pulling at the chains of convention; he had not broken them.) This production omits the Act III ballet sequence. Bruno Campanella's reading is in the middle of the road in terms of tempo, but its character is lively and mercurial on the whole -- an asset. The orchestra impresses as upper second tier.