ⓘ Macbeth (opera)


ⓘ Macbeth (opera)

Macbeth is an opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi, with an Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and additions by Andrea Maffei, based on William Shakespeares play of the same name. Written for the Teatro della Pergola in Florence, it was Verdis tenth opera and premiered on 14 March 1847. Macbeth was the first Shakespeare play that Verdi adapted for the operatic stage. Almost twenty years later, Macbeth was revised and expanded in a French version and given in Paris on 19 April 1865.

After the success of Attila in 1846, by which time the composer had become well established, Macbeth came before the great successes of 1851 to 1853 Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata which propelled him into universal fame. As sources, Shakespeares plays provided Verdi with lifelong inspiration: some, such as an adaption of King Lear as Re Lear were never realized, but he wrote his two final operas using Othello as the basis for Otello 1887 and The Merry Wives of Windsor as the basis for Falstaff 1893.

The first version of Macbeth was completed during the time which Verdi described as his "galley years," which ranged over a period of 16 years, and one which saw the composer produce 22 operas. By the standards of the subject matter of almost all Italian operas during the first fifty years of the 19th century, Macbeth was highly unusual. The 1847 version was very successful and it was presented widely. Pleased with his opera and with its reception, Verdi wrote to Antonio Barezzi, his former father-in-law and long-time supporter about two weeks after the premiere:

The 1865 revision, produced in a French translation and with several additions, was first given on 19 April of that year. It was less successful, and the opera largely faded from public view until the mid-20th century revivals.


1.1. Composition history Original 1847 version

Influenced by his friendship in the 1840s with Andrea Maffei, a poet and man of letters who had suggested both Schillers Die Rauber The Robbers and Shakespeares play Macbeth as suitable subjects for operas, Giuseppe Verdi received a commission from Florences Teatro della Pergola, but no particular opera was specified. He only started working on Macbeth in September 1846, the driving reason for that choice being the availability of a particular singer, the baritone Felice Varesi who would sing the title role. With Varesi under contract, Verdi could focus on the music for Macbeth. As a result of various complications, including Verdis illness, that work was not to receive its premiere until July 1847.

Piaves text was based on a prose translation by Carlo Rusconi that had been published in Turin in 1838. Verdi did not encounter Shakespeares original work until after the first performance of the opera, although he had read Shakespeare in translation for many years, as he noted in an 1865 letter: "He is one of my favorite poets. I have had him in my hands from my earliest youth".

Writing to Piave, Verdi made it clear how important this subject was to him: ".This tragedy is one of the greatest creations of man. If we cant make something great out of it let us at least try to do something out of the ordinary". In spite of disagreements and Verdis need to constantly bully Piave into correcting his drafts to the point where Maffei had a hand in re-writing some scenes of the libretto, especially the witches chorus in Act 3 and the sleepwalking scene, their version follows Shakespeares play quite closely, but with some changes. Instead of using three witches as in the play, there is a large female chorus of witches, singing in three-part harmony. The last act begins with an assembly of refugees on the English border, and, in the revised version, ends with a chorus of bards celebrating victory over the tyrant.


1.2. Composition history 1865 revised version for Paris

As early as 1852 Verdi was asked by Paris to revise his existing Macbeth in that city. However, nothing transpired but, again in 1864, Verdi was asked to provide additional music - a ballet and a final chorus - for a production planned at the Theatre Lyrique Theatre-Lyrique Imperial du Chatelet in Paris. In a letter to his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, asking for a copy of the score, Verdi stated that "I would like to lengthen several pieces to give the opera more character", but he quickly realized that the proposed additions would not be sufficient and that an overhaul of the entire opera was required. He went ahead to advise the impresario of the Lyrique, Leon Carvalho, that more time was needed and urged patience: "I am labouring, labouring, labouring" he assured the impresario and stressed that he wanted to look at the big picture and not try to hurry along a re-working of an opera he had written so many years before.

So began a revision of the original version of 1847 over the winter of 1864/65. Verdis librettist from years before, Francesco Maria Piave, was pressed into service to expand the opera and the composer exerted his usual pressures on him as he had done from their first collaboration: "No, no, my dear Piave, it wont do!" was a typical reaction to a first draft - in this case it was of Lady Macbeths new act 2 aria "La luce langue", the result of which notes biographer Mary Jane Phillips-Matz was "from Verdis insistence came Lady Macbeths gripping scene". With the addition of music for Lady Macbeth, Macbeths aria in act 3 was completely re-written - was a considerable amount of the rest of act 3; a ballet was added in act 3; a chorus began act 4; and the ending of act 4 was also changed, Verdi being determined to drop Macbeths final aria Mal per me che maffidai "Trusting in the prophecies of Hell" in favour of an off-stage death, to end with the triumphal chorus.

If all these specific demands which were placed on Piave were not enough, Verdi wrote a very lengthy letter to Ricordi outlining what he saw as the dramatic demands of the revision. Some relate to crucial elements in the drama, especially how Banquos appearances as a ghost should be presented. Ultimately however, Verdi had little power over the staged production, but - in regard to the translation - he did insist that the translator, when considering the act 2 duet between the Macbeth couple, retain the words "Folie follie" as written in order to emphasise the dramatic impact which those words created.

One final letter, this time in February to Escudier, relates to what Verdi saw as "the three roles in this opera, and there can only be three". He then lays out that there is Lady Macbet, sic Macbet, sic Chorus of Witches ", discounting the role of Macduff. and he continues by noting that, for him, "the Witches rule the drama.They are truly a character, and a character of greatest importance."

The new version was first performed on 21 April 1865 in a French translation by Charles-Louis-Etienne Nuitter and Alexandre Beaumont, although Verdi had asked for it to be done by Gilbert Duprez, the tenor-turned-teacher in whom he had great confidence and whom he knew from his performances in his first opera for Paris, Jerusalem in 1847. The composer refused to attend the Paris performance, but provided directions via his publisher, others directly to Escudier. Initially, the reports from Escudier were favourable, but the first performance was poorly received by the critics, something which puzzled the composer: "I thought I had done quite well with it.it appears I was mistaken" he stated when he wrote to his Paris publisher, Escudier. Later performances in Paris fared no better.

In Italian, the opera was given at La Scala in the autumn of 1865, but few if any others in Italy appear to have been presented. Since its revival in Europe from the 1960s, the revised version of Macbeth in Italian remains the preferred version for modern performances.


2. Performance history

19th Century

The 1847 version, after it was first given on 14 March of that year in Florence, was successful and was performed all over Italy in some 21 locations some repeated until the revised version appeared in 1865, at which time it was recorded that it was given only in Turin 1867, Vicenza 1869, Firenze 1870, and Milan 1874.

The first version was given its United States premiere in April 1850 at Niblos Garden in New York with Angiolina Bosio as Lady Macbeth and Cesare Badiali as Banco, while the United Kingdom premiere took place in October 1860 in Manchester.

After the 1865 premiere of the revised version, which was followed by only 13 more performances, the opera generally fell from popularity. It was given in Paris in April 1865 and then occasionally up to about 1900. However, after that, it was rarely performed until after World War II.

20th Century and beyond

The US premiere of the later version did not take place until 24 October 1941 in New York, but two European productions, in Berlin in the 1930s and at Glyndebourne in 1938 and 1939, were important in helping the 20th Century revival. The 1938 production was the UK premiere of the revised version and the first to combine the death of Macbeth from the 1847 version with the triumphal ending from the 1865 version, something totally against Verdis wishes.

Glydebourne revived it in the 1950s but it was not until 1959 that it appeared on the Metropolitan Operas roster for the first time and has often been performed there since then. The Opera Guild of Montreal also presented it in 1959. Similarly, the first presentations at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with Tito Gobbi and then others in the title role took place on 30 March 1960, with other productions presented in 1981 and 2002. The visiting "Kirov Opera" as todays Mariinsky Opera was then known, presented it in London at Covent Garden in 2001.

In recent times, the opera has appeared more frequently in the repertories of companies such as the Washington National Opera 2007 and the San Francisco Opera Nov/Dec 2007 and in many other opera houses worldwide, but almost all productions stage the revised version in Italian.

However, the 1847 version was given in concert at the Royal Opera House on 27 June 1997 and both the original and the revised versions were presented in 2003 as part of the Sarasota Operas "Verdi Cycle" of all the composers operas in their different versions.

In 2012, the Grand Theatre de Geneve presented a production of the opera under the direction of Christof Loy.

Today, Verdis Macbeth receives many performances at opera houses all over the world.


3.1. Synopsis Act 1

Scene 1: A heath

Groups of witches gather in a wood beside a battlefield, exchanging stories of the "evils" they have done. The victorious generals Macbeth and Banco enter. The witches hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis a title he already holds by inheritance, Thane of Cawdor, and king "hereafter." Banco is greeted as "lesser than Macbeth, but greater", never a king himself, but the progenitor of a line of future kings. The witches vanish, and messengers from the king appear naming Macbeth Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth protests that the holder of that title is still alive, but the messengers reply that the former Thane has been executed as a traitor. Banco, mistrusting the witches, is horrified to find that they have spoken the truth. In a duet, Macbeth and Banco muse that the first of the witches prophecies has been fulfilled. Macbeth ponders how close he is to the throne, and whether fate will crown him without his taking action, yet dreams of blood and treachery: while Banco ponders on whether the minions of Hell will sometimes reveal an honest truth in order to lead one to future damnation.

Scene 2: Macbeths castle

Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband telling of the encounter with the witches. She is determined to propel Macbeth to the throne - by fair means or foul.

Macduff pursues and fights Macbeth who falls wounded. He tells Macbeth that he was not "born of woman" but "untimely ripped" from his mothers womb. Macbeth responds in anguish Cielo! / "Heaven" and the two continue fighting, then disappear from view. Macduff returns indicating to his men that he has killed Macbeth. He then turns to Malcolm, hailing him as King. The scene ends with a hymn to victory sung by bards, soldiers, and Scottish women. Malcolm as King, and Macduff as hero, together swear to restore the realm to greatness.


4. Music

Baldinis analysis of the structure of the score in relation to the drama and the comparison between the two versions is highly detailed and worthy of examination. He notes that it is not always the 1865 material which is better or more suited than that from 1847. Writing in the Grove Dictionary, musicologist Roger Parker sees the opera as revealing Verdis "attention to detail and sureness of effect unprecedented in earlier works. This holds true as much for the conventional numbers.as for formal experiments like the Macbeth-Banquo duettino in act 1."

However, while he is not alone in raising the issue of the contrast between the 1847 version and that of 1865 "the passage of 18 years was just too long to allow him to re-enter his original conception at every point", in the final analysis for musicologist Julian Budden, the disparity between the versions cannot be reconciled. However, along with Parker, he does concede that "even the traditional elements are better handled than in Attila or Alzira the arias grow organically from the implications of their own material, rather than from the deliberate elaboration of a formula."