It's a glorious indulgence of luxury casting that brings us this month's return (beginning last night) of Verdi's Macbeth at the Met. Where else could you find -- for one aria each! -- Rene Pape pressed into service as Banquo and Joseph Calleja as Macduff? Pape, as ever, makes the most of his short turn (actually, I admit I've never found any of his longer parts as effective as his Marke, Escamillo, or Pogner). Meanwhile, it's been a very good year for tenors, but if the next Björling or Pavarotti is already out there, it can be no one but the 30-year-old Calleja. As he did in last season's Rigoletto, Calleja put on a display of old-school (pre-veristic) singing that brought the house down -- and, amazingly for the short part of Macduff, earned him the biggest ovation at curtain-calls. Lyric beauty plus natural unforced power plus stage ease equals stardom, but add bel canto mastery and an instantly-recognizable throwback timbre to the mix and you have a truly sui generis tenor whose potential equals the greatest. (Let's hope he's not prone to overdoing either food or drink...)
The danger of superstar bit players, though, is that they might unbalance the show. It actually happens here: nominal leads Carlos Alvarez and Hasmik Papian are commendable but workmanlike, so their fates fail to dominate the proceedings as they should. The fall-winter casts, despite flaws, seemed to sell the piece better. The January night I saw them, Guleghina (as ever) chewed scenery like no tomorrow and was in pretty good if unsubtle voice, while Lado Ataneli sang well and seemed more decisively engaged in the events than Alvarez. Banquo and Macduff were John Relyea and Dimitri Pittas: two young singers who sang strongly, but not so overpoweringly as to throw off ensemble balance. Even Levine seemed more comfortable back then (but then, he hadn't just returned from a weeks-long Boston run of Troyens).
I'm not sure why so many seemed to dislike this production. Adrian Noble is a British Shakespeare director, so what's the surprise when it looks like a British Shakespeare production? There was no great revelation, but the simple color/light-dark contrasts work, set elements and costumes are handsome and uncluttered (the cut-out space above was nice), and I found the walking-on-chairs bit appropriately eerie.
Its present incarnation is less than the sum of its parts, perhaps, but Calleja's not to be missed.
UPDATE (10:30PM): A little bird tells me that this cast didn't have stage and orchestra rehearsals until the day of the performance. So no wonder those who were called upon to do more than stand and sing one aria came off less well... Expect better, perhaps, in future shows as the principals become familiar with the thing.