Macbeth, Opera by G. Verdi
Giuseppe Verdi’s longstanding fascination with William Shakespeare finds its first remarkable expression in Macbeth, an opera the Italian master famously composed in 1847 and reworked extensively almost two decades later. This season, Macbeth comes to the stage of Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice in its ultimate form.
To rise to the task of presenting the Bard’s work on the operatic stage, Verdi recruited his trusted collaborator, librettist Francesco Maria Piave. Rumour has it the composer was so demanding of his wordsmith that Andrea Maffei had to step in and lend a writing hand as well. Macbeth had its premiere on 14 March 1847 at Teatro della Pergola in Florence and was very well received.
However, Verdi’s adulation for Shakespeare did not let him rest. Not quite satisfied with the initial work’s impact and treatment of the original, the Maestro gave his Macbeth a thorough workover, leaving not a single scene unchanged, and staged a second premiere at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris on 19 April 1865. This second, over-the-top version was then translated back into Italian and remains the preferred performance material to this day.
Given how much Verdi respected and loved Shakespeare, we can understand why he might have felt slightly inadequate adapting one of the playwright’s greatest tragedies. The truth, however, is that the composer created a moving, inspired, and unique score for Macbeth right from the start. Following Shakespeare’s original text quite closely, Verdi worked his spell to bring the rich, conflicted characters to musical life.
Lady Macbeth is, without a doubt, the show-stopper. Verdi declared that the role was not meant for a singer with a beautiful voice, and yet he composed arguably his richest, most technical and most inventive soprano passages for her. Her spoken-word entrance which grows into a recitativo and her sleepwalking scene that starts out half-sung and then slides up to the high D are definite attention-grabbers.
Macbeth himself is a formidable baritone, with splendid bel canto passages like the aria ‘Pietà, rispetto, amore’. A master of choral parts, Verdi turns Shakespeare’s three witches into a three-part women’s chorus that delivers Macbeth’s foretold fate. The patriotic chorus before Macduff’s solo spot is also among the composer’s finest. So began Verdi’s lasting love affair with Shakespeare, and what a start it was!