“It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which she will return to the Met,” said the Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb of the superstar Russian soprano Anna Netrebko in 2022. Within days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, the Met severed all ties with Netrebko, alleging that she was an irredeemable supporter of Vladimir Putin, and declared that no pro-Putin artists could perform for the company. Netrebko had denounced the war and publicly distanced herself from Putin, whom she claims to have met only a few times, but that was not good enough. She was removed from all upcoming performances without compensation despite an apparent contractual clause requiring payment for all scheduled performances, and the Met later refused to reconsider her status even after she further condemned the war. A year later, an arbitrator ordered the Met to pay Netrebko more than $200,000 for the canceled performances, but there is no sign of a rapprochement. Netrebko has reportedly sold her New York apartment, and Gelb’s wife, the conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, refused last fall to take the baton at scheduled performances of Tosca in Buenos Aires when it was announced that Netrebko would sing the title role.
Gelb beclowned himself by effectively firing his company’s biggest star—and perhaps the only one who could reliably sell out the house—at a time of historic financial woe and poor attendance for the company. However, most of the civilized world still rejects compelled speech and the gratuitous politicization of art. Netrebko was canceled at a handful of other venues, but at Milan’s La Scala she remains popular and beloved. Just weeks after her ouster from the Met, she gave a sold-out recital here that was loudly cheered by an enthusiastic audience. As the summer portion of La Scala’s 2022–23 season concluded this July, she returned to Italy’s leading opera house for what may now be her best role, Lady Macbeth in Giuseppe Verdi’s adaptation of the Bard’s masterpiece of power and fate. Notably, Lady Macbeth was Netrebko’s last role at the Met.
Verdi’s Macbeth premiered in Florence in 1847. It was the first of three operas that Verdi based on Shakespeare’s plays, for which he had a lifelong admiration despite never mastering English (a fourth project, King Lear, never reached fruition). La Scala essayed a staging of this production by Davide Livermore for its opening night gala in December 2021; alas, those were the times of the COVID–19 pandemic’s omicron variant. Milan’s socialist mayor thought it would be a good idea to mask everyone—not just in the theater, but in the city streets during daylight hours as well. He also canceled the usual festive post-premiere dinner at Milan’s elegant Società del Giardino.
My only prior experience of Livermore’s production was thus streaming it live over MediciTV while I sat unmasked in my Palm Beach drawing room. That was over a year and a half ago. As I sat in La Scala earlier this month to view the production in person for the first time, I wondered whether alterations had been made or if watching the production on a screen simply had not done it justice. In person, it was arrestingly vivid and deployed one of the most creative uses of theatrical technology I have ever seen. Staging Macbeth in mafia-style settings is nothing new, but the sets designed by Giò Forma, a Milan multimedia collective, transformed Scotland into a soulless cityscape dominated by a monumental dark-gray building with a ceremonial staircase and an industrial, cage-style elevator which provided entrances and exits for the performers. The sleepwalking scene, which gives Lady Macbeth the haunting aria “Una macchia è qui tutt’ora,” saw Netrebko wander out onto a high balcony as her character’s subconscious tried to expiate its guilt. The stunt looked daring (Netrebko had to be fixed up with a safety belt), and the effect was mesmerizing. A digital arts studio called D-Wok created projections of the surrounding city that evoked the hypermodernity of a Star Wars metropolis. The projections also bathed the stage in warm but aggressive colors for the ballet sequence, which Verdi introduced when he revised the opera in 1865 but which is usually cut in contemporary productions. The scene sets Macbeth’s descent into madness alongside a dance accompaniment suggestive of the final battle that will follow. In the end, as the cursed king faces destruction, vast explosions devastate his world.
The title role went to Amartuvshin Enkhbat, a talented young baritone who hails from Mongolia. His voice had the occasional barrel-chested bluster, but it was affecting in most moments. Enkhbat was supported with stentorian authority by the rich, charcoal bass of Jongmin Park, who played the part of Banquo, Macbeth’s friend and comrade who must be disposed of to preserve the royal line in accordance with the witches’ prophecy. Macduff is often a throwaway part; he is only there to get revenge for the unseen murder of his family and overthrow Macbeth, which he does in a swordfight that seems out of place as modern guns are blasting away. But the young Italian tenor Giorgio Berrugi sang the part beautifully enough to help his character seem more central to the action. Giampaolo Bisanti conducted ably, and the choruses were alive under Alberto Malazzi’s direction.
But the show belonged irresistibly to Netrebko, who is in superb voice and radiates perhaps the most riveting stage presence of any artist performing in opera today. Her strong, thick middle register grounded an erotic reading of Lady Macbeth—she and Macbeth do the deed after their vengeance duet as the elevator descends below stage—while allowing for sepulchral descents and thrilling high notes. It was impossible to take eyes or ears off of her for fear of missing even one gesture, one flash of the eyes, or one note of the music. The packed house rained down applause after the final curtain as she reveled in her character’s mischievousness, taking not just a well-deserved bow but a series of embellished spins. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that this performance was the best I have ever seen her give—an evening of magic Americans can only dream about or fly to Italy to see. The situation recalls the Twenties of another century when Americans had to go to Paris to see the otherwise unobtainable Josephine Baker. Next season, Netrebko will open La Scala in Verdi’s Don Carlo.