Dramma lirico in 4 acts
Libretto: Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei, after Shakespeare’s play (1606)
First performed: Teatro della Pergola, Florence, 14 March 1847
Revised version: Théâtre Lyrique, Paris, 21 April 1865
- MACBETH, general in Duncan’s army (baritone)
- LADY MACBETH, his wife (soprano)
- BANCO (Banquo), general in Duncan’s army (bass)
- MACDUFF, Thane of Fife (tenor)
- DUNCANO (Duncan), King of Scotland (silent)
SETTING: Scotland, 11th century.
Synopsis, based on Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Fayard, Paris, 2003
Three covens of witches meet on a blasted heath. The beating of a drum ends their meeting; Macbeth and his friend Banquo arrive. The witches hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, which he is, but also Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland. Banquo learns that he will be lesser than Macbeth, and greater; he shall not be king, but will beget kings. The witches vanish, leaving the two men puzzled. Messengers from King Duncan hail Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor, the last having forfeited his life and titles as punishment for rebellion. The first prophecy has come true. Macbeth trembles. The witches watch him leave.
Lady Macbeth reads the letter from her husband, telling her of the witches’ prophecies. Will he grasp power? The loyal wife tries to inspire him to the deed. And now is their chance: King Duncan intends to stay the night at their castle. When the king has gone to his chamber, Macbeth sees a vision of a dagger before him, inviting him to strike. He enters the king’s room, and kills him. He emerges, his hands covered in blood, and in a nervous state. Lady Macbeth takes the dagger, and wipes the blood on the king’s sleeping servants.
Macduff and Banquo knock on the door, come to wake Duncan. The murder is discovered, and the act ends in an ensemble that strikes like the wrath of God.
A room in the castle
Macbeth is king, and Duncan’s son Malcolm has fled to England, causing suspicion. The victory, however, has not yet appeased the ambitions of the murderous couple. Didn’t the witches promise royal descendants to Banquo? He must die.
Outside the castle
In a park, assassins wait for Banquo and his son, who are fleeing Macbeth’s castle. The murderers kill Banquo, but his son escapes.
A dining hall in the castle
The Macbeths are entertaining Scottish nobles. While Lady Macbeth sings a toast, one of the murderers whispers to Macbeth the success of their mission. Returning to his guests, Macbeth goes to sit down when he discovers the ghost of Banquo. His shock causes unease. Lady Macbeth tries to rescue the situation by continuing the toast. But the ghost reappears, sending Macbeth mad. Disturbed, the guests leave.
The witches’ cave
The witches sing and dance an infernal ballet. Macbeth comes to consult them. To satisfy him, they summon three spirits. The first warns him against Macduff; the second, a bloody child, tells him that no man of woman born can harm him; and the third, a crowned child, promises that Macbeth will be invincible until Birnam Forest should come to Dunsinane. But Macbeth wants above all to know the future of his reign. The witches conjure up visions of eight kings, among them Banquo, with a mirror in his hand, reflecting a long dynasty. Macbeth, terrified, collapses. Lady Macbeth comes to bring him back to the castle. Because Macduff has rejoined Malcolm in England, his castle will be razed and his family killed.
Near the border between England and Scotland
Scottish refugees weep for their lost country, while Macduff mourns his wife and children, murdered by Macbeth. Malcolm orders each soldier to cut a branch from Birnam Forest, and carry it before them while they march on the castle. Deliverance is at hand.
The Doctor and Lady-in-waiting wait for Lady Macbeth, who, each night, walks in her sleep. Terrified, they see her relive, in a trance, all the crimes of the royal couple.
Abandoned by his allies, Macbeth tries to console himself with the witches’ prophecies. But his life seems meaningless. He learns that Lady Macbeth is dead. Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Worse: Birnam Forest is marching on the castle. In the battle, Macbeth meets Macduff who tells him that he was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped. Macduff kills Macbeth, and Malcolm is hailed king of Scotland.
Verdi, like Berlioz and Wagner, was a Shakespeare fanboy.
“He is my favourite poet,” he told a critic; “I have known him from my childhood and read and reread him continually.”
Shakespeare inspired him to compose some of his finest operas, most famously Otello and Falstaff (based on The Merry Wives of Windsor and the Second Henriad). He’d toyed with the idea of turning both Hamlet and King Lear into opera. (The scene between Lear and Cordelia at the play’s end became the father–daughter duet in the last act of Luisa Miller.)
His adaptation of Macbeth is easily the best of Verdi’s early galley operas, which were too often full of sound and fury, signifying … little. This is an intense, claustrophobic opera that points the way to Verdi’s mature masterworks.
Here he creates an atmosphere of palpable evil from the start. The prelude, with its sinister figures on strings, harsh brass, and winds shrieking like the owl, describes the loneliness of damnation, lost in night and cut off from hope and every decent human feeling; it is as desolate as Herrmann’s score for Psycho.
The murder of Duncan is masterly. Macbeth resolves to go through with the crime, and pursues the dagger of the mind that floats before him, marshalling him the way that he was going. The bell strikes – “Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell / That summons thee to heaven or to hell”. Macbeth stumbles out of the murder chamber, stricken with guilt and terror, and his wife tries to reassure him.
In Lady Macbeth, Verdi created one of his great roles for a soprano, a part that demands an actress as well as a singer. He wanted Lady Macbeth to look ugly and evil – and called for a singer with a “hard, stifled and dark” voice, not a tweeting songbird.
Her sleepwalking scene is justly famous, Lady Macbeth singing in broken half-tones, a woman half-mad with guilt trying by candlelight to cleanse her hands of the blood only she can see.
The problem is Macbeth himself. Verdi’s opera lacks a sense of Macbeth’s fall from greatness.
Macbeth’s tragedy, for Shakespeare, is that he sacrifices his conscience to ambition. He may have been a “worthy noble”, loved by his king and esteemed by his peers, but once launched on his bloody career, there is no stopping him. He becomes ever more ruthless, wading through blood to seize and secure the throne of Scotland, the milk of human kindness curdling in his breast.
Verdi’s character lacks inwardness. Shakespeare’s tyrant may be a “butcher” and “Bellona’s bridegroom”, a man of war, but he is also sensitive and introspective, in thrall to his imagination and his nerves. His good nature wars with ambition in his breast; he resolves not to go through with the bloody business of murdering Duncan, but his wife goads him into action (I.vi). “Infirm of purpose!” She disparages his manhood, accuses him of cowardice, and reassures him. Verdi cuts this scene, which is crucial for understanding both Macbeth’s character and his relationship with his wife.
Verdi’s Macbeth is an out-and-out villain, a man of action rather than reflection or remorse. Words, for the Italian, to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives. We do not see what he was like before he met the witches, and the only time Macbeth shows much human feeling is his aria “Pietà, rispetto, amore”, based on Macbeth’s penultimate soliloquy (V.ii, with the line “My way of life / Is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf”).
Verdi and his librettists also misunderstand Banquo’s role in the play. He is a moral contrast to Macbeth. Both men hear the witches’ prophecy, but only one man falls. The witch’s prophecy tempts Banquo, but he overcomes that temptation, keeping his “bosom franchised and allegiance clear” (II.i).
These, though, are quibbles. “This tragedy,” Verdi wrote, “is one of the greatest creations of man… If we can’t make something great out of it let us at least try to do something out of the ordinary.”
Verdi may rest easy, sleeping well after life’s fitful fever. Unlike the dead butcher and his fiend-like queen, he has little to trouble his conscience.
Watch: The 1986 film starring Shirley Verrett and Leo Nucci, conducted by Riccardo Chailly:
Listen to: Verrett again, opposite Piero Cappucilli, in the 1976 Deutsche Grammophon recording conducted by Claudio Abbado.
A film of this production was broadcast on RAI: