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
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:
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.
The murder is discovered, and the act ends in an ensemble that strikes like the wrath of God.
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.