Verdi’s Macbeth: “The opera without a love affair!”

Title page with Macbeth and witches
Macbeth posta in musica da Giuseppe Verdi e per grata memoria dedicato al suo amatissimo suocero Antonio Barezzi Riduzione per Pianoforte solo de E. Muzio. [Piano score]. 1847. FOLGER 266549
“L’opera senza amore!” That was the Italians’ reaction to Verdi’s Macbeth when it premiered in Florence in 1847. Despite its immediate success and subsequent popularity, an opera that involved no great love affair struck audiences as an oddity. It was not as if Verdi was known for any blatantly amorous scenes in his operas—quite the contrary. But, without lovers who must go through hurdles to consummate their love, what would opera be like? There is a reason Charles Gounod in 1867 chose to concentrate on the two lovers in Roméo et Juliette and downplayed any aspect of politics from the original. After all, he gave us one of the best adapted endings when Juliet awakes for a few precious minutes in order to sing a sumptuous duet with Romeo before their inevitable death. And a year later, in 1868, French sensibility dictated that Ambroise Thomas needed to valorize Hamlet—few saw anything wrong with the character’s crowning as king at the end of the eponymous opera. As these examples show, bringing Shakespeare to the operatic stage often involved substantial adaptation.

When Giuseppe Verdi set out to compose Macbeth, his tenth opera, he had no true Italian model. Gioachino Rossini’s Otello (1816) had been incredibly successful (at least until Verdi’s own Otello in 1887) but primarily due to its major plot overhaul—when dealing with Shakespeare, faithfulness to the original was optional. Macbeth was additionally an odd choice, not only for the lack of a couple in love, but also for its focus on the main character. The themes of political corruption, tyrannical rule, longing for freedom, and plea for liberation appealed to Verdi on a personal level—Italy was still a fractured country and his operas helped foster the ever-increasing revolutionary activities of the Risorgimento. Shakespeare’s Macbeth had yet to reach the Italian theaters, however. Verdi had read the play many times in Italian translation, but saw it performed only after the premiere of his opera.

portrait of Giuseppe Verdi
“Giuseppe Verdi” | The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

From the start Verdi was adamant about creating an opera “unlike any other.” That he accomplished with resounding success. He wrote to Francesco Maria Piave (his Ernani librettist) that Shakespeare’s “tragedy is one of the greatest creations of man,” and furnished him with a detailed prose draft. “I’ve got the general character and the color of the opera into my head just as if the libretto were already written,” he wrote. No pressure! During the months that followed Verdi scrutinized much of the libretto that Piave sent him, and even solicited external help. When he grew unsatisfied with the versions of the libretto for the Lady’s sleepwalking scene, he asked his friend Andrea Maffei to provide a different text—and this is the one sung by Lady Macbeth in act IV.

His veneration for Shakespeare and his attention to detail extended during the rehearsals leading up to the premiere. He had secured an incredible lead in the baritone Felice Varesi and yet his letters to him are full of advice and admonition, especially insisting that he continue to “study the words and the dramatic situation.” Verdi expanded the role of Lady Macbeth and required a soprano whose voice did not possess traditional beauty; he preferred a voice that was “rough, hollow and stifled,” and insisted that “every word has a meaning, and that it is absolutely essential to express that meaning both with the voice and in the acting.” At his advice, Marianna Barbieri-Nini, the first Lady Macbeth, even consulted with a real sleepwalker! This kind of attention to verisimilitude and dramatic veracity were unprecedented.

Musically the score was also a turning point for Verdi. “If we cannot make it a masterpiece, let us at least do something out of the ordinary,” he wrote to Piave. Verdi broke many of the rules that dictated a proper framework for Italian opera in favor of a more fluid, cohesively unfolding music drama. He still maintained the traditional grand arias and great choruses, but he designed them around a tightly paced drama. The scene of Banquo’s ghost, the dagger soliloquy, and the prophecies and the “show of kings” owe a lot to the revolutionary ideas by his exact contemporary Richard Wagner. As he later admitted, the novelty in Macbeth represented his own attempt at the Wagnerian “fusion of music and drama”—and this is an extraordinary, and true, admission. Macbeth, more than any other of his early operas, represents an astonishing synthesis of Shakespeare’s astute psychological insights matched with music of unprecedented expressive and emotional subtlety.

By 1865, when he got an invitation to have Macbeth performed in Paris, Verdi was at the height of his career and had seen several staged productions of Shakespeare’s play. Armed with further insights and an ever-maturing musical language, he sought to revamp the original score for the Parisian premiere. In addition to the translated libretto and the obligatory ballet sequence required of all operas when transferred to the Parisian stage, Verdi made some important additions to and substantial revisions of acts III and IV. He added a witches’ ballet in the beginning of act III and concluded it with the astonishing duet of the two protagonists. Lady Macbeth received extra music in act I, the extraordinary “La luce langue,” an aria that adumbrates Lady Macbeth’s dark psyche. In place of the original chorus that opened act IV, Verdi now wrote “Patria oppressa,” a hymn sung by Scottish exiles. In its unabashed patriotic spirit one hears echoes of the famous “Va pensiero” from Nabucco, and we are again reminded that Verdi manages to insert his staunch patriotism even in the most unlikely of places. Appropriately, the opera ends not with Macbeth’s death but with an appended hymn of victory upon Malcolm’s crowning as king of Scotland—a fitting peroration and an overt message to the audiences who also desired to see occupied Italy unified under one ruler.

Macbeth at Toledo Opera
Mark Rucker and Othalie Graham as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

The production of Macbeth that opens the 61st season of the Toledo Opera on Friday, October 4, 2019, is based on the now standard 1865 version of the opera, with Mark Rucker and Othalie Graham in the extraordinarily challenging roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, respectively. True to the Toledo Opera’s mission, the performances of Macbeth were preceded on September 25 by “Macbeth Day,” an outreach event that aimed to bring Shakespeare and opera to the community. Students from local schools participated in a six-hour event that included readings from the play, interviews, and live music, hosted at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library and broadcast live by the local NPR station, Toledo’s WGTE.