“Here is my Macbeth, which I love more than my other operas”, wrote Giuseppe Verdi in 1847 to his father-in-law, friend and supporter Antonio Barezzi, to whom the opera score was dedicated. Being “the most daring and most ambitious” of his early works, this opera remained the composer’s favourite child till his death.
The first mention of Macbeth is found in Verdi’s letters of May 1846. By this time Verdi is not just popular, but he has also become the most fashionable composer not only in Italy. The popularity of the young composer (he is thirty-three) has crossed the Alps: Donizetti suggests staging his opera Ernani, which in Italy is already on at twenty-three theatres, in Vienne; similar proposals are received from directors of Parisian and London theatres. The premiere of Attila has just caused furore in Venice, then it’s production has already become even a greater success in Florence, Ferrare, Reggio, Livorno, Rovigo, Vicenze, Padue, Trieste, Cremone. There is not a single, even the smallest, theatre in Italy which has not staged his Nabucco and I Lombardi. The composer is bombarded with commissions from all sides and he works day and night, literally driving himself to nervous exhaustion. Amid other proposals he receives a commission from the impresario Alessandro Lanari to write an opera for della Pergola Theatre in Florence.
As usual, Verdi considers several possible subjects for work, this time — Die Rauber by Schiller (later set to music with the Italian title, Masnadieri), Die Ahntrau by Grillparzer and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Gradually the composer’s thoughts center around Die Rauber and Macbeth and he starts developing both plots, not quite knowing yet, which one to prefer. However, as it often happens, the situation was resolved by the circumstances, in this case — by availability of singers selected by the composer. Verdi wrote Die Rauber, having in mind the brilliant tenor Gaetano Franceschini for the main part, but for a number of reasons the contract between the theatre and Franceschini was not concluded. Other eligible tenors could not be found and Verdi and Lanari decided in favour of Macbeth, as the title part was written for baritone, and a lead tenor ceased to be needed. The composer put aside the half-written score of Die Rauber and focused his efforts on Macbeth.
Verdi had always been interested in meaningful, profound, significant plotlines. At various times he had turned his attention to works by Lord Byron, Hugo, Schiller, Verner, Volter, Euripides, Racin, Dumas.. Macbeth was the composer’s first encounter with Shakespeare. And it was Shakespeare that brought up in his mind the theme, which later became one of the central subjects in the composer’s works, — “the tragedy of a man of spirit overwhelmed by a fatal passion”. The main hero of the play is the leader of the Scottish army Macbeth — a real “renaissance” character. Being a man of outstanding abilities — strong, courageous, talented, energetic, fearless, Macbeth, unlike the characters of early Shakespeare’s tragedies Iago and Edmund, who absolutely rejected goodness, undoubtedly knew the difference between good and evil. This makes the tragic contradiction even sharper: being possessed by his insatiable hunger for power, Macbeth agrees on a crime, thus, knowingly dooming himself to destructive pangs of consciousness, madness, moral and physical destruction.
Verdi was enthralled by strength and passion of powerful characters, complex and conflicting situations, a combination of dramatism and sublime poetry, so typical of Shakespeare’s works. On no other opera, before or after Macbeth, did Verdi work so much, so scrupulously and so thoroughly.
Using his instinct as a musician and a dramatist, he personally wrote “a detailed prose version of the drama, showing the distribution of the acts, the scenes and the musical numbers”. Only after that he sends the complete synopsys to his librettist Francesco Maria Piave, accompanying it with a note: “Here is the draft of Macbeth. This tragedy is one of the greatest creations of man! … If we cannot make something great with it, let us at least try to do something out of the ordinary. The draft is clear: unconventional, simple, and short. I beg you to make the verses also short; the shorter they are the more effect you’ll make…not a superfluous word must they contain. Brevity and sublimity”.
Verdi got increasingly dissatisfied with Piave. Insistent demands interchanged with detailed instructions, instructions — with reproaches, reproaches turned into flair-ups of irritation and anger. And, at last, in January 1847 Verdi abruptly broke up with Piave — the future librettist of his Le Corsaire, Stiffelio, Rigoletto, La traviata, Simon Boccanegra, Aroldo, La forza del destino and the second version of Macbeth — and called on Andrea Maffei, another friend and distinguished Italian poet and writer, to revise and finish the libretto together. Such composer’s preoccupation with the text of Macbeth was not without a reason. Adequate adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy to music required overcoming the attitude to a word as to a subordinate element of opera, fully dependant on the development of a melodic line. In Macbeth a poetic word regains its dramatically effective meaning.
Naturally, Verdi could not use the text of the tragedy without making necessary alterations: many things were reduced or omitted. A number of scenes and characters disappeared, the characters opposing Macbeth — Malcolm and Macduff were simplified, and the character of King Duncan was present only perfunctorily. The most significant addition was introduction of a new chorus, of Scottish refugees, at the beginning of Act IV. This new emphasis on the theme of the liberation of a country under occupation couldn’t fail to receive a supportive response among Italian public, as it coincided with general patriotic sentiment prevalent in the country before the revolution of 1848-1849. Yet, for the first time in Verdi’s operatic experience, the anti-tyrannical motive receded into the background. The composer’s primary focus was on the fate of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
It was the first time that Verdi had written an opera without a traditional love affair. Instead he explored gloomy solemnity of history, the greatness and significance of extraordinary personalities: Lady Macbeth’s passionateness, lust for power, willpower and resolution, Macbeth’s painful pathos, spiritual turmoil, consternation, as well as dramatism of feelings and evill associated with the struggle for power. It was in music, characterizing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, that Verdi managed to translate original Shakespeare’s verses. Of special note in this respect is the scene of sleepwalking where the original text of the tragedy was only slightly abridged.
Still, it would be unfair to think of Macbeth only in terms of personal tragedy of the main characters. According to Verdi, there are “three main characters in the drama: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the Witches: The witches dominate the drama; everything derives from them — coarse and gossipy in the first act, sublime and prophetic in the third. They are truly a character, and a character of the utmost importance.” Instead of using there soloists — witches, the composer introduced three groups of chorus, considering that a powerful choral recitation would produce a necessary dramatic effect.
The next step was work with singers. For Macbeth, Verdi did not need virtuoso singers, who were reigning on the Italian operatic stage at that time. Trying to raise the genre of opera to the level of high tragedy, the composer set down new, unprecedented for Italian opera requirements to artists. Breaking all possible conventions, he put dramatic expressiveness and meaningfulness of performance before beautiful voice and singing skills.
In this respect, the choice of performers appears quite illustrative. Verdi wrote Macbeth for the baritone Felice Varesi and insisted upon him for the title role. The composer was even prepared to come into conflict with Lanari, as the impresario had already contracted another brilliant baritone — Gaetano Ferri. Trying to convince Lanari to reject Ferri, Verdi writes to him: “I don’t deny the merits of Ferri, who has a more handsome presence and a more beautiful voice, and, if you like, sings better, but not even he could create the effect in this role that Varesi would’. Similar ‘paradoxical” requirements Verdi applied to the performer of Lady Macbeth. He formulated them in 1848 in a detailed letter, protesting against the talented singer Eugenia Tadolini: “Tadolini looks beautiful and good, and I should like lady Macbeth to look ugly and evil. Tadolini sings to perfection, and I should like Lady Macbeth not to sing at all. Tadolini has a stupendous voice - clear, limpid, powerful: I should like in Lady Macbeth a voice rough, harsh and gloomy. Tadolini’s voice has angelic qualities: I should like the voice of Lady Macbeth to have something diabolic about it”. The composer intended this part for Marianna Barbieri-Nini, who, according to her contemporaries, had plain looks, but possessed a strong, expressive soprano and was a wonderful actress.
Then, Verdi literally bombarded performers with letters. In each letter, together with new fragments of their parts, he provided detailed instructions about his vision of characters “so great, so energetic, so original”, theirs vocal, and, most importantly, dramatic execution. Verdi involves himself closely in the work’s staging. He does not miss a single, even seemingly most insignificant, detail. He is concerned not only with the quality of execution of supporting roles, the number of chorus members, the composition and placement of the stage orchestra, but also decorations, costumes, mise en scenes, make-up, lightening, special effects. Verdi is frantically active: he has “eminent scholars do research about epoch and costumes”, writes to London to find out the way Macbeth is staged in Shakespeares’s homeland and orders there sketches for the costumes; consults prominent theatre designers about the use of a new magic lantern technique.
Disregarding singers’ caprices, Verdi sometimes openly resorted to pressure and continued rehearsing till the curtain was up. He wanted the level of the new production to be substantially different from what the audience and performers were used to. Macbeth premiered at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence on March 14, 1847. The first presentation received mixed responses, which according to various sources ranged from “got quite a cold receipt” to “had a triumphant success”. However, “a triumphant success” was supported by the fact that the opera was immediately staged at dozens of theatres in Italy and soon spread over to other countries. Ten years later its performance history included over two hundred productions: in 1849 opera was staged in Vienna, in 1850 - in New York and two years later in Stockholm, in 1854 Macbeth was heard in St Petersburg, and in 1860 the part of Lady Macbeth was performed by the virtuoso Polina Viardo in Manchester.
In March 1864, Verdi received an offer to stage the opera at Paris’ Théâtre Lyrique. Because it was traditional for all operas in Paris to include a ballet, Verdi began the revision of the scores and found them “either weak, or lacking in character, which is worse still.” This resulted in the creation of a new Paris version of the opera.
Revision of Macbeth was the greatest effort ever undertaken by Verdi in respect of any of his early works. Almost one third of the music to the opera was either revised or rewritten. The composer strove to enhance the dramatic expressiveness of the heroes’ musical characteristics. Thus, in the second version Lady Macbeth receives a new, more profound interpretation. She becomes the central character. Such reassessment was probably a result of impressions Verdi received at performances of the Shakespeare’s tragedy he had first seen in London in 1847. The Paris version of Macbeth was a moderate success. Verdi blamed the singers, critics associated the opera’s failure with the composer's poor knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare’s works. The composer was very indignant: “Oh, in this they are very wrong. It may be that I have not rendered Macbeth well, but that I don’t know, don’t understand, and don’t feel Shakespeare — no, by God, no. He is a favorite poet of mine, whom I have had in my hands from earliest youth, and whom I read and reread constantly”. The composer remained faithful to this love all his life. The list of Verdi’s Shakespeare-based operas, which Macbeth started, and which was continued by King Lear, are crowned by such acclaimed Verdi’s operatic masterpieces as Othello and Falstaff.
The stage history of Macbeth in the XX century features variety of productions staged by almost all leading opera companies around the world. Unfortunately, until recently Russian theatres were an exception. In 2001, which was designated by UNESCO the Year of Verdi, Macbeth was for the first time performed on stage of the Mariinsky Theatre.