Macbeth, Opera by G. Verdi
“No, no, my dear Piave, it won’t do!” – so demanding was Giuseppe Verdi of his favourite librettist Francesco Maria Piave while the two worked on Macbeth. This was the composer’s first operatic dramatisation of a play by William Shakespeare, a poet he revered most highly. The fruit of the hard work and immense self-criticism comes to life on the stage of Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice this season!
When Verdi took on the project in the fall of 1846, he was determined to make something truly grand out of it. After all, Macbeth was one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, and it was only fitting for its operatic version to be just as strong. Francesco Maria Piave, with the help of Andrea Maffei, crafted an Italian libretto quite close to the English original, and the opera had its premiere on 14 March 1847 at Teatro della Pergola in Florence.
Verdi, in his later correspondence, singled out three characters who carry his opera: Lady Macbeth, Macbeth and the Three Witches Chorus. Although the whole opera shines with inspired melodies and bold compositional decisions, these are the work’s three pillars indeed.
Most of all, the character of Lady Macbeth carries all the qualities Shakespeare put in her and expresses them in music both beautifully and viscerally. She enters with some spoken-word lines – a letter from Macbeth – that build into a tense recitative. She sleepwalks, at first delivering her lines half-sung and half-spoken until she effortlessly rises up to a high D. Verdi required a voice that was not beautiful for the role, and yet he crafted some of his most technical and inventive lines especially for her.
Macbeth himself is a dramatic baritone who gets to show both forceful and bel canto lines. The Three Witch Chorus, an expansion on Shakespeare’s original dramatic device, foretells the tragic events in three-part harmony that is at once evocative, harrowing, and slightly comical. As always, Verdi’s choral work impresses with its clarity and power.
Despite Macbeth’s success, Verdi did not feel it did justice to the supreme play and thoroughly reworked it for a second French premiere at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris on 19 April 1865. Though greatly expanded, it did not add much to the original’s greatness, and the Italian version remains the source of most performances today.