Verdi, Shakespeare and Macbeth

Little Honey and Puffles are at His Majesty’s Theatre suitably dressed to compete with the magnificent costumes from WAO’s Macbeth 🙂

Antoinette Halloran as Lady Macbeth and James Clayton as Macbeth

Verdi adored Shakespeare. Besides the three operas he took from him — Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff — he considered (though briefly) doing a Tempest or Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. He considered for a very long time, and came near to creating, an opera from his favorite play, King Lear. He did not take lightly the duty of being true to Shakespeare. When he read the score of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet, he said of the librettists, “Poor Shakespeare! How they have mistreated him!” He had no intention of mistreating the great dramatist himself.

Macbeth was unprecedented in Verdi’s art both for its psychological penetration and the refinement of its orchestral colouring. With it, Verdi jumped musically 50 years ahead. The tinta, the colour of the opera, is very shadowy and there are few very famous arias. The difficulty with Macbeth is that you must consider it not as a series of arias, but as an organic body – there is an unbroken dramatic line running from the first to the last note of the opera.

Macbeth is ‘early Verdi’ in that it was written before 1850, but in terms of the specifics of the opera, it is not ‘early Verdi’ at all, it’s very mature Verdi. And while Verdi made some revisions in 1865, for the Paris premiere, he didn’t alter very much. He refined some elements, but basically what he wrote in 1847 was already a fantastic opera.

Verdi wrote the initial draft for the libretto, and then he nagged his librettist Francesco Piave into producing exactly the text he wanted. A letter reads: ‘This tragedy is one of the greatest creations of the human spirit. If we can’t do something great with it, let us at least try to do something out of the ordinary.’ What Verdi wanted from the libretto was not the beauty of the poetry but the fire of the drama. And in this, Piave did a fantastic job. If we look at Macbeth’s libretto from a literary point of view, there are some less successful moments, but Piave never lost the high dramatic temperature that Verdi required.

A portrait of Giuseppe Verdi, painted in 1886 by Giovanni Boldini.

A triumph at its 1847 Florence premiere, then revised for Paris in 1865, ‘L’opera senza amore’, as the Italians dubbed it, has been derided for its stylistic inconsistencies, and for the alleged triteness of the witches’ choruses. Yet most opera lovers would agree that Macbeth is a masterpiece both great and ‘out of the ordinary’, unprecedented in Verdi’s art both for its psychological penetration and the refinement of its orchestral colouring: such as the eerie, wailing cor anglais in the sleepwalking scene, or the evocative use of low clarinets. More than other composers in the 19th century Italian opera industry, Verdi involved himself closely in a work’s staging. Nag, nag, nag… With Macbeth he went further than ever, minutely supervising every aspect of production. He gave the scene designer, who hadn’t a clue about Shakespeare’s play (still unperformed in Italy in 1847), a crisp lesson in Scottish history. He wrote to the Florence impresario Alessandro Lanari specifying the exact number of witches – three groups of six – and stressing the need for a good tenor for the part of Macduff, and the importance of the ensembles.

Verdi had no time for singers with attitude. ‘I am annoyed that the singer who will play Banquo doesn’t want to come on as his ghost. Why is this? Singers must be engaged to sing and to act. It is high time we stopped being lenient here. It would be monstrous for someone else to play the ghost. It must be immediately recognisable as Banquo.’ Verdi even wrote to London to discover how the appearance of Banquo’s ghost was customarily staged in the play. Verdi seems to have existed in a constant state of nervous irritability. Increasingly exasperated with Piave for resisting his requests for changes, he sacked him and engaged the poet Andrea Maffei to make final adjustments to the witches’ chorus in Act 3 and Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene.

For the title-role Verdi insisted upon the baritone Felice Varesi, who had so impressed him as Don Carlo in Ernani. Stressing that the opera was written ‘in an entirely new manner’, he enjoined Varesi to ‘serve the poet before the composer’, and worked with him and the Lady Macbeth, Marianna Barbieri-Nini, on every nuance of their roles. According to an unreliable memoir, Barbieri-Nini complained that Verdi rehearsed the breathtakingly original ‘Gran scena e duetto’, beginning with Macbeth’s dagger soliloquy, more than 150 times, and then called a final rehearsal moments before the public dress rehearsal. But while Verdi made unprecedented demands on his singers, many reports, from all periods of his life, confirm his kindness and consideration to them.

Teatro Pergola foyer
Teatro Pergola, Florence

After the premiere at the Teatro della Pergola (Florence, a remodelled version of the theatre still there today) on March 14, 1847, Verdi informed Maffei’s estranged wife, Clarina, in Milan that ‘the opera was not a fiasco’: dour Verdian understatement if ever there was. In fact, Barbieri-Nini received an ovation after the sleepwalking scene, and the composer was called back for no fewer than 38 curtain calls. After its initial triumph, Macbeth quickly made its way around the Italian peninsula. Performances in Madrid and Vienna soon followed, and by 1858 it had even reached New York. Verdi dedicated the opera to Antonio Barezzi, the father of his late wife, who as ‘benefactor, father and friend’ had helped make possible his career as a composer: ‘Here, then, is Macbeth, which I love above all my other works, and for that reason deem it worthy to be presented to you.’

As one of his personal favourites, Verdi discouraged the opera featuring as an ‘opera di ripiego’ (a stop-gap work used to fill up the repertory if other, more important productions failed). Most revealing, though, is a comment he made as late as 1875, at a time when – much to his annoyance – he was being bombarded by questions about Richard Wagner. An interviewer in Vienna steered round to the inevitable topic, and Verdi is reported as commenting in a most surprising manner:

When our conversation turned to Wagner, Verdi remarked that this great genius had done opera an incalculable service, because he had had the courage to free himself from the tradition of the aria-opera; ‘I too attempted to blend music and drama, in my Macbeth’, he added, ‘but unlike Wagner I was not able to write my own libretti’.

The most important experiment in Macbeth is the new way musical moods define two strands of the opera’s world, giving them what Verdi later called tinte or identifying colours. The first strand belongs to the witches, and is largely confined to the opening scenes of the first and third acts, which in Verdi’s words had to be ‘trivial but in an extravagant and original way’. Both scenes move from the minor to the major mode, and both employ similar musical means to depict the witches: sudden changes of rhythm and texture; rapid, Mendelssohnian passages in thirds for the strings; dark woodwind sonorities.

The second strand of tinta is associated with Macbeth (baritone) and Lady Macbeth (soprano) and is more widespread. Here there is a prominent recurring motif: a simple alternation of middle C with the note a semitone above, which accompanies Macbeth’s words ‘Tutto è finito!’ (All is finished) as he returns from murdering King Duncan, immediately before his Act 1 duet with Lady Macbeth. The ‘tutto è finito’ idea is simple enough to perform its purpose without ostentation, and flexible enough to function in subterranean ways, in particular disappearing into accompanying figures.

But Macbeth offers more than just an added sense of musical coherence. In order to do justice to the excess – in particular the free mixing of the comic and serious – that the 19th century found in Shakespeare, Verdi was even more uncompromising about the vocal urgency of his dramatic message. A hint of this comes in a letter by Emanuele Muzio, Verdi’s composition pupil and general dogsbody, who could be relied on to repeat uncritically his master’s opinions. Writing to a mutual friend, Muzio stressed Macbeth’s novel use of the baritone protagonist, whom they hoped would be sung by Felice Varesi (1813–89), one of the great singer-actors of the day (he later created both Rigoletto and Germont père in La traviata):

Now everything depends on an answer from Varesi; if Varesi agrees to sing in Florence … then [Verdi] will write Macbeth, in which there are only two principals: [Lady Macbeth] and Macbeth – Loewe and Varesi. The others are secondary roles. No actor in Italy can do Macbeth better than Varesi: because of his way of singing, because of his intelligence and even because he’s small and ugly. Perhaps you’ll say that he sings out of tune, but it doesn’t matter at all because the part would be almost completely declaimed, and he’s very good at that.

Verdi’s own letters to Varesi were more circumspect, but their sentiments were the same. It is also significant that Verdi imagined Loewe, so forceful a presence in Ernani, for the part of Lady Macbeth. In the end she was not available, but Verdi was adamant that he must have someone who was a fitting partner for the unprepossessing but uniquely dramatic Varesi. When one of the greatest sopranos of the period, Eugenia Tadolini, was suggested as Lady Macbeth, Verdi rejected her with great explicitness:

Tadolini’s qualities are far too good for this role. … Tadolini has a beautiful and attractive appearance, and I would like Lady Macbeth to be ugly and evil. Tadolini’s voice has an angelic quality; and I would like the Lady’s voice to have something of the diabolical! The two principal numbers in the opera are … the duet between Lady and her husband and the sleepwalking scene. If these numbers fail, then the opera is ruined. And these pieces must not be sung: they must be acted out and declaimed with a very hollow and veiled voice; otherwise they won’t be able to make any effect.

This was an astonishing reversal of the values that had sustained Italian opera through the 18th century and up to Rossini, in which beauty of vocal delivery had conquered all in the expression of drama. Vocal beauty, the quality that had portrayed saints and sinners alike for so long, quite suddenly became insufficient. Voice must now suit character.

The kind of music Verdi wrote for these extraordinary performers is well illustrated by the Act 1 ‘Gran Scena e Duetto’, which he mentioned as one of the opera’s ‘principal numbers’.

Even though this duet is conventional in being cast in multi-movement form, it is unconventional in making few distinctions in vocal behaviour between one movement and the next. Both characters express themselves mostly in stifled phrases. In the first two movements, Macbeth makes sporadic attempts to introduce more traditionally lyrical ideas (in the first movement he recalls Duncan’s sleeping attendants, in the second with ‘Com’angeli d’ira’ – Like angels of anger); but on both occasions he is countered, silenced even, by brittle ornamental explosions from Lady Macbeth, who derides his doubts as ‘follie’ (madness). The fact that her crazed coloratura recurs in three of the four movements is itself unusual, contributing to the sense that the entire duet is a single musical argument. Equally important, though, is that Verdi uses her vocal virtuosity to unorthodox ends. What had traditionally been decorative and ornamental here marks hysteria, or at the least forced, unconvincing gaiety. In other words, in this heavily charged, declamatory world, vocal ornament becomes jarring, laden with negative meaning. The final movement of the duet, traditionally the place in which ornament spills forth no matter what, makes this clearer still: it is stifled and subdued throughout, ending with isolated staccato exclamations low in the singers’ registers.

It was a further mark of Macbeth’s significance that Verdi agreed to add ballet music to a revival planned for Paris’s Théâtre Lyrique in 1865; he also decided to make substantial changes to some sections that were, as he called them, ‘either weak or lacking in character’. These included a new aria for Lady Macbeth in Act 2 (‘La luce langue’; The light weakens) and the replacement of Macbeth’s death scene with a final, French-sounding ‘Inno di vittoria’ (Hymn of victory). The Paris version is what we usually hear today, in spite of the stylistic dissonances Verdi’s revisions create. ‘La luce langue’ makes no attempt to adapt to the surrounding musical atmosphere, indeed is one of the most radical stretches of music (both orchestrally and harmonically) that Verdi had written even by the mid-1860s. Another example is the ‘Inno di vittoria’. The 1847 death scene it replaced was faithful to Macbeth’s vocal personality, being almost entirely declaimed, and returning chillingly to the tonality and motivic ambience of the Act 1 duet with Lady Macbeth. The ‘Inno’, on the other hand, is a jaunty chorus of celebration, with a virtual quotation of ‘La Marseillaise’ at the end (something guaranteed to get the French up and saluting). So how much musical coherence does an opera need? In 1847, Verdi invested parts of Macbeth with much connective musical tissue (recurring orchestral combinations, motifs that appear periodically in different context, etc.); in 1865 he sacrificed some of this to bring his opera up to date and make it more amenable to Parisian taste. Today we have access to both versions; we can (at least on recordings) mix-and-match, perhaps including ‘La luce langue’ but retaining the old death scene. And the choices may well be invigorating, reminding us that operatic texts from the past need not be sacred objects, even in today’s museum culture.

James Clayton as Macbeth
Antoinette Halloran as Lady Macbeth

WAO’s production departs from Verdi in one key aspect. Verdi deliberately chose “ugly” singers for Macbeth and his wife, and told them not to sing beautifully. Antoinette Halloran as Lady Macbeth and James Clayton as Macbeth sang superbly. With respect to the staging, Roger Kirk’s simple but clever set comprised a combination of large moveable uprights and lighting effects with bursts of dry ice brilliantly reflecting the creepy environs of the witches and gloomy Scottish castles. The stage was tilted upwards away from the audience to create a fantastic depth visually. The witches were suitably weird in black gowns with large-toothed necklaces. The male nobles were represented as barbaric warriors, all kilts and furs and crossed swords. The courtiers define the period with 16th century starched ruffs and Elizabethan hairdos. It was clear that director Stuart Maunder and the designer Roger Kirk were sharing a coherent vision.

Jud Arthur as Banquo

Paul O’Neill as Macduff