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 Shakespeare's play of the same name. It was Verdi's tenth opera and also the first of Shakespeare's plays which he adapted for the operatic stage.
Written after the success of Attila in 1846 by which time the composer had become well established, it was 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 King 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 middle of what Verdi was to describe as his "galley years". Ranging from 1842 to 1850, this period saw the composer produce 14 operas, but 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, on 25 March 1847 just about two weeks after the premiere: "I have long intended to dedicate an opera to you, who have been father, benefactor, and friend to me. It was a duty I should have fulfilled sooner if imperious circumstances had not prevented me. Now, I send you Macbeth which I prize above all my other operas, and therefore deem worthier to present to you" 
The 1865 revision, produced for Paris in a French translation and with several additions, 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 Macbeth as suitable subjects for operas, Giuseppe Verdi started writing the music for Macbeth in 1846 after receiving a commission from Florence's Teatro della Pergola and an assurance that certain singers would be available, especially the baritone, Felice Varesi. (Maffei was already writing a libretto for I masnadieri, which was based on the suggested Schiller play. Due to various complications, including Verdi's illness, it was not to receive its premiere until July 1867).
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 a 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 correcting Piave's 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. 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 were all that was needed, he realized that an overhaul of the opera was required. Advising the impresario of the Lyrique that more time was needed, he took the opportunity to revise the entire opera, in particular by adding music for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Acts 1 and 3; the addition of a ballet in Act 3; and changing the endings of Acts 3 and 4, in the latter case by dropping Macbeth's aria Mal per me che m'affidai - "Trusting in the prophesies of Hell" and adding the triumphal choral ending.
Once again Piave was called into service and the new version was first performed on April 21, 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" .
It remains the preferred version for modern performances.
The 1847 version was successful and was performed all over Italy until the revised version appeared in 1865. 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. 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 up to about 1900, it was rarely performed until after World War II. The US premiere of this version did not take place until 24 October 1941 in New York.
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 only in 1960.
In recent times, the opera has appeared more frequently in the repertories of the Washington National Opera (2007) and the San Francisco Opera (Nov/Dec 2007) and many other opera houses worldwide, but almost all productions stage the revised version with the exception of both the original and the revised versions which were presented in 2003 as part of the Sarasota Opera's "Verdi Cycle" of all the composer's operas in their different versions.
14 March 1847
(Conductor: Giuseppe Verdi)
19 April 1865
(Conductor: Michel Adolphe Deloffre)
||Jean-Vital Jammes ("Ismaël")
||Jules "Giulio" Bilis-Petit
|Servant to Macbeth
||2 sopranos and 1 bass
|Duncano (Duncan), King of Scotland
|Fleanzio (Fleance), son of Banco
|Witches, messengers, nobles, attendants, refugees - chorus
Note: there are several differences between the 1847 and the 1865 versions which are noted below in indented text in brackets
- Place: Scotland
- Time: 11th century
Scene 1: A heath
Groups of witches gather in a wood beside a battlefield. The victorious generals Macbeth and Banco enter. The witches hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and king "hereafter." Banco is greeted as the founder of a great line of future kings. The witches vanish, and messengers from the king appear naming Macbeth Thane of Cawdor. In a duet, Macbeth and Banco muse that the first of the witches' prophecies has been fulfilled.
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.
- [Revised version only: 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. The murder is discovered by Macduff. A 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, but 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. 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's 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 compared to the later version's division of the music into sections for the male and female members, then uniting 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").
Scene 3: The battlefield
Macbeth has learned that an army is advancing against him but is reassured by remembering the words of the apparitions (Pietà, rispetto, amore - "Compassion, honour, love"). 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 prophesies of Hell" - proclaims that trusting in the prophesies of hell caused his downfall. He dies on stage, while Macduff's men proclaim Macduff 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. The scene ends with a hymn to victory sung by bards, soldiers, and Scottish women (Salva, o re! - "Hail, oh King!).
- See Macbeth discography (opera).
- ^ Verdi's letter to Barezzi in Verdi: The Man in his Letters", p.122.
- ^ a b c d Budden, Julian, The Operas of Verdi, Vol. 1, pp. 269/270
- ^ Budden, p.272 On page 274, Budden quotes from a letter which Verdi wrote to Ricordi in 1857 stating that Maffei's contributions were "with the consent of Piave himself"
- ^ Letter of June 1865 quoted in Budden, p.278
- ^ Angiolina Bosio at operissimo.com
- ^ Holden, Amanda (ed.), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001, p. 984. ISBN 0-140-29312-4
- ^ Budden, p.310
- ^ Metropolitan Opera's performance archive
- ^ AmadeusOnline listings
- ^ Libretto accompanying the Opera Rara CD recording, pp. 148/150
- ^ a b Daniel Albright, "Verdi's Macbeth - The Critical Edition", Opera Today, 20 November 2005, retrieved 10 October 2008
- Budden, Julian: The Operas of Verdi, Vol 1, 3rd edition, New York: Cassell, 1974. ISBN 0198162618
- Melitz, Leo, The Opera Goer's Complete Guide, 1921 version.
- Werfel, Franz and Stefan, Paul (trans. Edward Downes), Verdi: The Man in his Letters, New York: Vienna House, 1973, p. 122. ISBN 0844300888