Zeljko Lucic and Maria Guleghina in Macbeth
(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Zeljko Lucic and Maria Guleghina in Macbeth
(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
When Giuseppe Verdi was preparing Macbeth way back in 1847, he demanded that his first cast pay close attention to William Shakespeare's original text. Curiously, that doesn't totally appear to be the case with the Metropolitan Opera's new Macbeth, which marks the company debut of former Royal Shakespeare Company head Adrian Noble.

While fans of Verdi's work will appreciate this revival for Noble's best notions -- not to mention James Levine's sturdy and stirring job in the orchestra pit -- they will also have to look past Noble's frequent disregard of nuanced theater behavior in favor of familiar stand-there-and-sing staging strategy. And given Noble's illustrious past with non-singing material -- including a stage version of Macbeth where Jonathan Pryce and Sinead Cusack went at it tooth and nail -- it's ironic that what's deficient here is the acting.

When Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic, who plays the Thane of Cawdor, just stands there and sings -- or frequently falls to the ground in anguished guilt -- he sounds marvelous. Lucic easily fills the hall with the often deliberately tentative music supplied for the character. However, this slightly stocky singer is more than slightly stodgy as a man of impulsive action. As Lady Macbeth, Ukrainian Maria Guleghina, whose soprano often has the rough quality Verdi wanted, has her acting skills in place. But on the production's opening night, she took time getting her voice under control. Still, she was mesmerizing when she finally reached the famed sleepwalking scene, during which her somnambulist walking was perilously done across a bridge of gilded chairs.

While the murderous Macbeths here cling to each other every so often -- Lady Macbeth once embraces her man from behind, eliciting a laugh from the audience -- the pair give the impression of having completed Romantic Chemistry 101 with only passing grades. Worse, when they fall on one another in supposed fits of passion, they resemble two toppled punching bags.

The supporting roles are well-sung, with John Relyea offering up a robust Banquo and Dimitri Pittas unleashing chilling vocal beauty in the small tenor part of MacDuff, who is mourning his slaughtered wife and sons. The choral singing is also fine and no more so than during the fourth-act hymn Verdi inserted to acknowledge current events of interest to him then -- and still pertinent now.

The witches chorus, which numbers close to 50 (as opposed to Shakespeare's mere three), also sounds harmoniously ominous. Dressed by set and costume designer Mark Thompson in what look like Salvation Army overcoats, hats, and pocketbooks, the weird sisters are asked to behave like demented girl scouts around a campfire. Indeed, the frenetic, potion-quaffing witches are so outrageous that they're hard to resist. The group-- whom Verdi and librettists Francisco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei considered the third crucial character in the drama -- are Noble's most compelling directorial fillip.

Otherwise, it's the physical look his design team has produced that often does for the eye what the singing does for the ear. Thompson has placed a forest of bare trees upstage, and lining the sides of the stage are large columns that reconfigure the playing area by gliding back and forth.

When Macbeth importunes the witches to show him the future, a large crystal ball rises from below on which what appear to be singing holograms are projected. (Among them, young Ashley Emerson as a bloody child makes a strong impression.) When Macbeth sees himself replaced by Banquo's heirs, medallions drop into view as if about to form the Olympic circle symbol. Shakespeare always asks for a fair amount of foul weather, and lighting designer Jean Kalman effectively obliges.

Macbeth may be lesser known than other Verdi works -- including his other Shakespeare great shakes, Falstaff and Othello -- but it remains a musically compelling opera. Whatever else Noble does or doesn't do, he and colleagues forcibly get that essential point across.