Plácido Domingo has outpaced anyone’s expectations going on to perform more roles than anyone in the history of opera. Moreover, his work as a baritone has also proved to go beyond what all thought was possible. In 2015, Domingo made his debut as Macbeth, a role which is considered among the most difficult in the Verdi baritone canon and triumphed. He went on to repeat it in many other cities and now thanks to Sony Classical and the LA Opera, audiences who have yet to be captivated by the interpretation can experience it on DVD.
From the beginning of the opera, it was clear that Domingo’s Macbeth was not the hero of this story. Once the witches foretold of the future, Domingo looked and sounded haunted by everything he heard. One already saw the glimpses of what would come. Still, he maintained a regal and passionate timbre.
In his first scene with Lady Macbeth, the legendary artist savored the power by the side of his wife. But as she told him of her plans, Domingo’s bright timbre turned hesitant and dark. The little moments of glory immediately turned to fear. It was all the more emphasized in his monologue. Each phrase obtained a slight breathiness that emphasized the hesitance in this Macbeth. And that quality was maintained throughout the subsequent duet as Domingo looked frightened at his murder.
The tormented king continued to descend into madness at the beginning of Act two as he was surrounded by the queen and the witches. While he was sitting on the throne, it was clear that he was not the one in power.
Domingo weakened further during the banquet scene, singing straight at the ghost of Banquo and running uncontrollably around the stage before falling to the ground. The singing became more detached, the lines more jagged in execution. And even when he calmed down, Domingo’s look of terror continued and he sang with passion.
During Macbeth’s Act three scene with the witches the baritone’s physicality furthered this notion of an eroding King. Domingo walked with a limp, emphasizing the instability and the movements became even more frantic as the witches continued to reveal the future. Domingo’s voice retained power but he removed the finesse one is used to hearing in his singing, the effect all the more potent.
Perhaps the standout of Domingo’s performance comes at the end in his aria “Pieta, Rispetto, Onore.” Domingo caressed each line with vulnerability, showing Macbeth’s inner turmoil. Accompanied by the orchestra, Domingo’s dynamics increased as he moved toward the aria’s climax, creating sympathy for the murderous tyrant.
Furthermore, he added the final aria that Verdi originally employed to conclude the opera. Domingo’s timbre weakened with each line which eventually ended with a gasp. The inclusion of this passage only added to the tragedy as one saw Macbeth’s final suffering and devastation.
If Domingo’s Macbeth was unstable, Ekaterina Semenchuk’s Lady Macbeth immediately showed her dominance in the relationship as she entered with a booming tone, biting into each of her phrases in the opening “Vieni t’affretta.” Her voice gaining more power in the cabaletta “Or tutti sorgette.” Her look transformed from devilish to delight as she relished her impending triumph and her ambitious goals. There were moments where the voice could sound a bit strained but those were overshadowed by Semenchuk’s imposing charisma.
In her duet with Macbeth, Semenchuck hovered around Domingo’s weakened Thane as he threw himself to the ground. Semenchuk started her line with a whisper-like piano before gaining strength in her voice. The conclusion of her “Follie! Follie!” was delivered with agility, imitating a sarcastic laugh. After committing further murder, Semenchuk retained the strength in her voice but the phrasing contained a coarseness. Even as she looked at her hands, this Lady remained cool and calculated.
Her following aria “La Luce Langue” Semenchuck used her dark mezzo voice to evoke the villainous quality of Lady Macbeth. The voice took on a rounder timbre as Semechuck caressed the throne relishing her power and lust for murder. The words “Requiem” and “Eternita” were emphasized as the line went to the lowest parts of her mezzo. She concluded the aria by sitting on the throne with a triumphant B flat on”cadra” before getting up and flashing her imposing frame.
In the banquet scene, Semenchuk once again showed her strength over Domingo’s Macbeth. As Domingo sat at his throne, she hovered over him singing her first verse of the brindisi. The coloratura lines were sung with ease but with a fierce and potent quality. There was never any doubt of who was in control of the scene. However, in the second repetition of “Si colme il calice” Semenchuk started with a piano sound singing directly at Domingo but biting into each word with anger. Then, suddenly, she imbued the singing with aggression and the full blast of her sound. The coloratura runs became less exact and it was apparent this Lady was not having any of Macbeth’s lunacy, so forceful was her intensity.
As Domingo’s Macbeth continued to unravel so did Semenchuk’s Lady and by the end of the concertato, her fear was palpable. The authoritative figure was but a shadow as she threw herself to the floor looking at Domingo’s Macbeth for reassurance. The singing continuously obtained more strength as her soprano boomed over the orchestra.
Her unraveling continued through her Act three duet. While Semenchuk entered with assurance and her timbre contained strength, her facial expressions showed insecurity and she clung to Domingo’s Macbeth for aid.
In the sleepwalking scene, Semenchuk fully descended into madness as she walked on stage looking completely lost. The virile woman from the beginning was now a distant memory. Once she began “Una Macchia e qui tuttora,” she laid down on the floor tormented, looking through at her hands trying to take the spot off. Her movement became unpredictable rolling all over. Semenchuk’s phrases also became choppy, almost spoken, evoking the Lady’s unhinged character. And as she ended the aria, Semenchuk rose to the final D flat and attacked with an aggressive tone almost like a shriek of fear. Before she left the stage walking into the distance, she looked into the audience, clearly terrorized.
Banquo, Macduff and The Witches
As Banquo Ildebrando D’Arcangelo sang “Come dal ciel precipita” with a dark bass filled with fear and desperation. Meanwhile, Joshua Guerrero’s Macduff was represented with ardor and passion. His “Ah, La Paterna Mano” grew in strength with each phrase, the vocal lines connected smoothly. This pure tenor voice is one to look out for as he is likely to excite in the future.
Rounding out the solid cast was Joshua Wheeker as Malcolm, Summer Hassan as the Lady in waiting and Theo Hoffman as the Doctor.
The witches in this opera have a prevalent part and at many times are the most fun to watch. In the case of Tresnjak’s production, this chorus is sidelined to the top of the stage. Audiences never see them as the dancers dressed as witches take center stage. Still, the chorus sings as a great accompaniment to the dancers. The ladies emphasized the ugliness of these creatures through their snarling tone. They felt at times like savage animals ready to prey.
In the pit, James Conlon was as reliable as always, keeping Verdi’s forward-drive at the top of his priorities. We could feel the music as if fate getting ever closer toward its tragic goal. Conlon also emphasized certain rhythms with slight accents, which added to the dark color and to the ugliness of the characters. In many ways, his interpretation is a bit lighter than most other maestros as the orchestras does not seem to overpower the artists at any given moment.
Darko Tresnjak’s take on the opera is for the most part traditional as he keeps the tale in its period and the wardrobe by Suttirat Anne Larlarb only furthers this feeling. The idea of sexuality or masculinity is also not really played up between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Only at one point during Lady Macbeth’s “La Luce Langue” does she have similar clothing to Macbeth, creating a striking image as she sits on the throne almost as if she were the ruler and not her husband. Otherwise, Tresnjak keeps it very safe.
His production is made up of arches that open up like a hall to evoke some interesting lighting effects. He plays with shadows a lot, particularly with Lady Macbeth as she walks in and out of them in her interactions with Macbeth. The interesting thing that Tresnjiak also toys with is the witches. During the entire production dancers dressed as creepy-looking critters roam around the stage with skulls, climbing walls, overlooking the chorus, or simply dancing around the stage. It creates a sense that they are in control of every action and the ugliness of these creatures is haunting. Even at the end of the opera as the people celebrate the triumph, the witches appear, foreshadowing that their work is far from finished.
The distracting camera
Recording opera has become easier and more houses are engaging in this very activity to keep interpretations for posterity. However, it is also increasingly clear that many of the directors tasked with the recordings either have no experience with opera, do not know the text, or are obsessed with rapid cuts. Let’s take a look at Lady Macbeth’s opening aria “Vieni t’affretta,” as a painful example. The scene featuring just Lady Macbeth is constantly cut from a wide shot to a medium shot to a close-up and back and forth. What should be an intimate scene where the villainess invokes the demons to help her rise to power, becomes a distracting display of swift cuts that take away from the incredible performance. And let’s not even get to the choral scenes where the edits constantly cut from one camera to the next. Yes, it may be to capture the full splendor of the production but it doesn’t allow the audience to focus on anything and what is supposed to be a stimulating performance is too hard to watch at times and it’s easier just to close one’s eyes to really get the full effect of the music. If only some of these cuts were actually synchronized with the music itself, it might be easier to deal with.
While this may not be the most revelatory or best-looking “Macbeth” DVD on the market, the two leads are worth the price of admission. Domingo reveals why he is still the king of opera and Semenchuk makes a strong case for dramatic mezzos singing the role of Lady Macbeth.