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 Shakespeare's play of the same name. Written for the Teatro della Pergola in Florence, it was Verdi's tenth opera and first given on 14 March 1847. Macbeth was the first Shakespeare play that Verdi adapted for the operatic stage.
Written after the success of Attila in 1846, by which time the composer had become well established, Macbeth came before the great successes of 1850 to 1853 (Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata) which propelled him into universal fame. As sources, Shakespeare's 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 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 for Paris 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.
Influenced by his friendship in the 1840s with Andrea Maffei, a poet and man of letters who had suggested both Schiller's Die Räuber (The Robbers) and Shakespeare's play Macbeth as suitable subjects for operas, Giuseppe Verdi received a commission from Florence's 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. (Maffei was already writing a libretto for I masnadieri, which was based on the suggested Schiller play, but it could have been substituted for Macbeth had the baritone not be available. Due to various complications, including Verdi's illness, that work was not to receive its premiere until July 1847).
Piave's text was based on a prose translation by Carlo Rusconi that had been published in Turin in 1838. Verdi did not encounter Shakespeare's 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 can't make something great out of it let us at least try to do something out of the ordinary". In spite of disagreements and Verdi's need to be constantly bully Piave's 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 Shakespeare's 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 (though it should be noted that they are divided in three groups, and that every group sings as a single witch, using "I" and not "we"). 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.
1865 revised version
In 1864, Verdi was asked to provide additional music - a ballet and a final chorus - for a production at the Théâtre Lyrique (Théâtre-Lyrique Impérial du Châtelet) in Paris. Initially thinking these additions would be sufficient, he quickly realized that an overhaul of the entire opera was required and he went ahead to advise the impresario of the Lyrique that more time was needed. So began a revision of the 1847 Macbeth. In particular, music for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth was added in acts 1 and 3; a ballet was added in act 3; and the endings of acts 3 and 4 were also changed, in the latter case by dropping Macbeth's aria Mal per me che m'affidai ("Trusting in the prophecies of Hell") in favor of an off-stage death for Macbeth, and then adding the triumphal choral ending.
Once again Piave was called into service and the new version was first performed on 21 April 1865. Overall, the first performance was poorly received, something which puzzled the composer: "I thought I had done quite well with it...it appears I was mistaken".
But, in Italian, it remains the preferred version for modern performances.
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 Niblo's 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 Verdi's wishes.
Glydebourne revived it in the 1950s but it was not until 1959 that it appeared on the Metropolitan Opera's roster for the first time. (It has been given 91 performances between 1959 and the 2008 revival). 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 today's 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
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 Opera's "Verdi Cycle" of all the composer's operas in their different versions.
In 2012, the Grand Théâtre de Genève presented a production of the opera, under the direction of Christof Loy who invited the Swedish contemporary artist Jonas Dahlberg to create the set design. Dahlberg, whose own work often deals with architecture and film, designed a set which resembled a black and white film. He used Alfred Hitchcock's, Rebecca, and Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr as key references to "dive in the dark and psychic intimacy of the characters". The musical director was Ingo Metzmacher. Lady Macbeth was performed by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore, Davide Damiani sang Macbeth, and Christian Van Horn was Banco.
Operabase, the opera database which provides information on productions going forward from early 2011 into 2014/15, currently shows 380 performances of 79 productions in 67 cities as having taken place or planned to take place. The "Opera Statistics" section reveals that this opera stands at number 27 of the top 50 operas performed in the five seasons from 2008/09 to 2012/13, with 140 performances.
Note: there are several differences between the 1847 and the 1865 versions which are noted below in indented text in brackets
Time: 11th century
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: Macbeth's 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.
[Revised version: Vieni! t'affretta! - "Come! Hurry!"].
Lady Macbeth is advised that King Duncan will stay in the castle that night; she is determined to see him killed (Or tutti, sorgete - "Arise now, all you ministers of hell"). When Macbeth returns she urges him to take the opportunity to kill the King. The King and the nobles arrive and Macbeth is emboldened to carry out the murder (Mi si affaccia un pugnal? - "Is this a dagger which I see before me?"), but afterwards is filled with horror. Disgusted at his cowardice, Lady Macbeth completes the crime, incriminating the sleeping guards by smearing them with Duncan's blood and planting on them Macbeth's dagger. Macduff arrives for an appointment with the King, while Banco stands guard, only for Macduff instead to discover the murder. He rouses the castle while Banco also bears witness to the fact of Duncan's murder. The chorus calls on God to avenge the killing (Schiudi, inferno, . . - "Open wide thy gaping maw, O Hell").
Scene 1: A room in the castle
Macbeth is now king: Duncan's son Malcolm has fled the country, suspicion having conveniently fallen on him for his father's murder: but Macbeth is still disturbed by the prophecy that Banco, not he, will found a great royal line. To prevent this he tells his wife that he will have both Banco and his son murdered as they come to a banquet.
[Revised version only: In her aria, La luce langue - "The light fades", Lady Macbeth exults in the powers of darkness]
Scene 2: Outside the castle
A gang of murderers lie in wait. Banco is apprehensive (Come dal ciel precipita - "O, how the darkness falls from heaven"). He is caught, but enables his son Fleanzio to escape.
Scene 3: A dining hall in the castle
Macbeth receives the guests and Lady Macbeth sings a brindisi (Si colmi il calice - "Fill up the cup"). The assassination is reported to Macbeth, but when he returns to the table the ghost of Banco is sitting in his place. Macbeth raves at the ghost and the horrified guests believe he has gone mad. Lady Macbeth manages to calm the situation once - and even mocks it by calling for a toast to the absent Banco (whose death is not yet public knowledge), only for the ghost to appear a second time and terrify Macbeth into insanity again. Macduff resolves to leave the country, saying it is ruled by a cursed hand and only the wicked may remain: the other guests are terrified by Macbeth's talk of ghosts, phantoms and witches. The banquet ends abruptly with their hurried, frightened departure.
The witches' cave
The witches gather around a cauldron in a dark cave. Macbeth enters and they conjure up three apparitions for him. The first advises him to beware of Macduff. The second tells him that he cannot be harmed by a man 'born of woman'. The third that he cannot be conquered till Birnam Wood marches against him. (Macbeth: O lieto augurio - "O, happy augury! No wood has ever moved by magic power")
Macbeth is then shown the ghost of Banco and his descendants, eight future Kings of Scotland, verifying the original prophecy. (Macbeth: Fuggi regal fantasima - "Begone, royal phantom that reminds me of Banco"). He collapses, but regains consciousness in the castle.
[Original version: The act ends with Macbeth recovering and resolving to assert his authority: Vada in fiamme, e in polve cada - "Macduff's lofty stronghold shall / Be set fire....".]
A herald announces the arrival of the Queen (Duet: Vi trovo alfin! - "I've found you at last"). Macbeth tells his wife of his encounter with the witches and they resolve to track down and kill Banco's son, and Macduff (who they do not yet know has already fled the country) and his family (Duet: Ora di morte e di vendetta - "Hour of death and of vengeance").
Scene 1: Near the border between England and Scotland
Scottish refugees stand near the English border (Chorus: Patria oppressa - "Down-trodden country"):
[Original version: While each version uses the same libretto, the music of this chorus is different. It begins with a less ominous, much shorter orchestral introduction and is sung straight through by the entire chorus.]
[Later version: the music is divided into sections for the male and female members, then it unites them towards the end. The revised version is 2 minutes longer than the original.]
In the distance lies Birnam Wood. Macduff is determined to avenge the deaths of his wife and children at the hands of the tyrant (Ah, la paterna mano - "Ah, the paternal hand"). He is joined by Malcolm, the son of King Duncan, and the English army. Malcolm orders each soldier to cut a branch from a tree in Birnam Wood and carry it as they attack Macbeth's army. They are determined to liberate Scotland from tyranny (Chorus: La patria tradita - "Our country betrayed").
Scene 2: Macbeth's castle
A doctor and a servant observe the Queen as she walks in her sleep, wringing her hands and attempting to clean them of blood (Una macchia è qui tuttora! - "Yet here's a spot"). She raves about the deaths of both Duncan and Banco, and even about the deaths of Macduff's family, and that all the perfumes of Arabia would not clean the blood off her hands: things that the horrified witnesses would never dare to repeat to any living man.
Scene 3: The battlefield
Macbeth has learned that an army of Scottish rebels backed by England is advancing against him, but is reassured by remembering the words of the apparitions, that no man born of woman can harm him. However in an aria (Pietà, rispetto, amore - "Compassion, honour, love") he contemplates the fact that he is already hated and feared - there will be no compassion, honour and love for him in his old age even if he wins this battle, nor kind words on a royal tomb, only curses and hatred. He receives the news of the Queen's death with indifference. Rallying his troops he learns that Birnam Wood has indeed come to his castle. Battle is joined.
[Ending of the original version: Macduff pursues and fights Macbeth who falls. He tells Macbeth that he was not "born of woman" but "ripped" from his mother's womb. Fighting continues. Mortally wounded, Macbeth, in a final aria - Mal per me che m'affidai - "Trusting in the prophecies of Hell" - proclaims that trusting in the prophecies of hell caused his downfall. He dies on stage, while Macduff's men proclaim Malcolm to be the new King.]
Macduff pursues and fights Macbeth who falls wounded. He tells Macbeth that he was not "born of woman" but "ripped" from his mother's 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: then turns to Malcolm, hailing him as King. The scene ends with a hymn to victory sung by bards, soldiers, and Scottish women (Salve, o re! - "Hail, oh King!). Malcolm as King, and Macduff as hero, together swear to restore the realm to greatness.
Baldini's 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 Verdi's "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 [and] the arias grow organically from the implications of their own material, rather than from the deliberate elaboration of a formula."
But Deryck Cooke, in his 1964 essay "Shakespeare into Music", argues that Macbeth is inferior to both Verdi's later works inspired by Shakespeare (Otello, Falstaff) and the Bard's original:
Only during the present Verdi craze could his Macbeth be seriously set beside its tremendous original. What can we make of a Macbeth who pursues his fatal vision through a musical desert of the old fustian recitative, or a Lady Macbeth whose prayer to be unsexed is a barn-storming martial cabaletta? In the "Grand scena di sonnambulismo", admittedly, Verdi did so magically stroke the big strumming guitar of his orchestra, and so chasten the vocal pride of Italian bel canto, as to foreshadow his achievements of some forty years later.
Baldini, Gabriele, (trans. Roger Parker) (1980), The Story of Giuseppe Verdi: Oberto to Un Ballo in Maschera. Cambridge, et al: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29712-5
Budden, Julian (1984), The Operas of Verdi, Vol 1, 3rd edition, New York: Cassell. ISBN 0-19-816261-8
Cooke, Deryck (1964), "Shakespeare into Music" in Vindications: Essays on Romantic Music. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982 ISBN 0521289475 ISBN 9780521289474
Kimbell, David (2001), in Holden, Amanda (Ed.), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam. ISBN 0-14-029312-4
Parker, Roger (1998), "Macbeth" in Stanley Sadie, (Ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. Three, pp. 111– 113. London: MacMillan Publishers, Inc. ISBN 0-333-73432-7 ISBN 1-56159-228-5
Werfel, Franz and Stefan, Paul (trans. Edward Downes) (1973), Verdi: The Man in his Letters, New York: Vienna House. ISBN 0-8443-0088-8
De Van, Gilles (trans. Gilda Roberts) (1998), Verdi's Theater: Creating Drama Through Music. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-14369-4 (hardback), ISBN 0-226-14370-8
Gossett, Philip (2006), Divas and Scholar: Performing Italian Opera, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-30482-5
Martin, George, Verdi: His Music, Life and Times (1983), New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. ISBN 0-396-08196-7
Melitz, Leo (1921), The Opera Goer's Complete Guide.
Osborne, Charles (1969), The Complete Opera of Verdi, New York: Da Capo Press, Inc. ISBN 0-306-80072-1
Parker, Roger (2007), The New Grove Guide to Verdi and His Operas, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-53134-7
Pistone, Danièle (1995), Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera: From Rossini to Puccini, Portland, OR: Amadeus Press. ISBN 0-931340-82-9
Phillips-Matz, Mary Jane (1993), Verdi: A Biography, London & New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-313204-4
Toye, Francis (1931), Giuseppe Verdi: His Life and Works, New York: Knopf
Walker, Frank, The Man Verdi (1982), New York: Knopf, 1962, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-87132-0
Warrack, John and West, Ewan, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera New York: OUP: 1992 ISBN 0-19-869164-5
Verdi: "The story" and "History" on giuseppeverdi.it (in English)
Macbeth: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project
List of Arias
Daniel Albright, Opera Now, 20 November 2005. Review of the critical edition