Verdi and His Macbeth

Classic Arts Features   Verdi and His Macbeth
Reading Verdi's correspondence reveals insight into the composer's dramatic and musical aims for his first Shakespearean opera (which opens at The Dallas Opera Nov. 9).

Soon after the triumphant premiere of Macbeth at the Teatro della Pergola of Florence on 14 March 1847, Verdi dedicated its vocal score to his father-in-law, Antonio Barezzi [All translations from the Verdi correspondence are adapted from those in Verdi's Macbeth: A Sourcebook, edited by David Rosen and Andrew Porter]:

    Here now is this Macbeth, which I love in preference to my other operas, and thus deem more worthy of being presented to you. The heart offers it; may the heart receive it.

Verdi's affection for his first opera based on Shakespeare was manifest throughout its rehearsal period. He knew that the success of the work depended on three dramatic presences: Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, and the chorus of witches. In a series of remarkable letters to performers and impresarios, both in 1847 and later, in 1865, when he prepared a revised version of the opera for Paris, he tried to help them understand his dramatic and musical aims. Through them, we can learn much that still bears on performing Macbeth today.

When Léon Escudier, Verdi's French publisher, informed the composer that the French theater presenting a partially revised Macbeth in 1865 wanted to have some music from the Act II Brindisi performed by Macduff, Verdi protested:

    Bear in mind that there are three roles in this opera, and three is all there can be: Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, and the chorus of witches. The witches dominate the drama; everything derives from them. [...] In both their singing and their acting, they must be brutal and coarse from the beginning up to the moment in Act III where they are confronted with Macbeth. From this point on, they are sublime and prophetic.

As he prepared the opera in 1847, Verdi returned again and again to the chorus of witches, especially in the first act. To his poet, Francesco Maria Piave, he wrote:

    To have character, the witches' first strophes should be stranger; I can't tell you how to do it, but I do know that they're not good the way they are. [...] Experiment and find a way of writing bizarre poetry.

To the impresario he insisted:

    You see I'll need an excellent chorus, in particular the women's chorus must be very good, since there'll be two witches' choruses of the utmost importance.

But the composer's principal attention was devoted to Macbeth and his Lady, first performed by two great singers, Felice Varesi and Marianna Barbieri-Nini. Verdi thought highly of Varesi, for whom he later composed the roles of Rigoletto and the elder Germont in La traviata. Before a note of the opera was drafted, even before he had announced its subject, Verdi told the Florentine impresario:

    Varesi is the only artist in Italy today who is able to do the part I have in mind, both because of his style of singing and his feeling — and even because of his appearance.

More than a month before leaving his home in Milan for rehearsals in Florence, Verdi began sending music to Varesi. With the first package, mailed on 7 January 1847, he supplied this commentary:

    I'll never stop urging you to study the dramatic situation and the words well; the music will come by itself. In a word, I'd rather you served the poet better than you serve the composer. You'll be able to do well for yourself with the first duettino ["Due vaticini"]. Bear in mind the dramatic situation, which is when he meets the witches who predict the throne for him. You're stunned and terrified by this prophecy; but, at the same time, there is born in you the ambition to reach the throne. Therefore you'll sing the beginning of this duettino sotto voce, and be sure that you give real importance to the lines "Why do I feel this terror?" Pay careful attention to the indications, the accents, and to the pianissimos and fortes marked in the music.
    In the grand duet [for Macbeth and Lady], the first lines of the recitative — when he gives orders to the servant — should be said without emphasis. But when left alone, he gradually gets carried away, and thinks he sees a dagger before him, pointing the way to the murder of Duncan. This is a most beautiful moment, both dramatically and poetically, and you must take great care with it. It's night; everyone is asleep, and this whole duet will have to be sung sotto voce, but in a hollow voice such as to arouse terror.

Later that January Verdi sent him another installment, and finally on 4 February the death scene:

    In this final scene there's an adagio in D-flat, every detail of which needs coloring, cantabile and passionate. [...] You'll be able to make much of the death scene if, together with your singing, your acting is well thought out. Macbeth mustn't die like Edgardo [in Lucia di Lamermoor], therefore it has to be treated in a new way. It should be affecting, yes; but more than affecting, it should be terrible. All of it sotto voce, except for the last two lines, which, in fact, you'll also accompany with acting, bursting out with full force on the words "Vile... crown... and only for you!..."

In his later revision, Verdi replaced this final scene for the dying Macbeth, which by 1865 he considered somewhat old-fashioned, with a hymn of victory, but many opera houses restore it in modern performances.

For the role of Lady Macbeth, Verdi originally wanted the great singing actress Sofia Loewe, his first Elvira in Ernani and Odabella in Atilla.

When that proved impossible, he happily accepted Marianna Barbieri-Nini, his original Lucrezia in I due Foscari, as an alternative. He was clear what he didn't want Lady Macbeth to be, as he told a colleague during preparations for a revival in Naples with Eugenia Tadolini:

    You know how highly I regard Tadolini, and she herself knows it; but I believe it's necessary — for the interest of all concerned — to make a few observations. Tadolini's qualities are far too good for that role! This may seem absurd to you!! ... Tadolini has a beautiful and attractive appearance; and I would like Lady Macbeth to be ugly and evil. Tadolini sings to perfection; and I would like the Lady not to sing. Tadolini has a stupendous voice, clear, limpid, powerful; and I would like the Lady to have a harsh, stifled, and hollow voice. Tadolini's voice has an angelic quality; I would like the Lady's voice to be diabolical.

With Lady's Cavatina, early in January 1847, Verdi began giving instructions to Barbieri-Nini:

    The character of the part is resolute, bold, extremely dramatic. The plot is taken from one of the greatest tragedies the theatre boasts, and I have tried to have all the dramatic situations drawn from it faithfully and to compose music tied so far as possible to the ext and to the situations.

Later, sending her both the Duet with Macbeth from the first act and the sleepwalking scene, Verdi wrote:

    Bear in mind that every word has a meaning, and that it is absolutely essential to express it both with the voice and with the acting. Everything is to be said sotto voce and in a way that will arouse terror and pity. Study them well and you'll see that you can make an effect with them.

In her memoirs, Barbieri-Nini recalls rehearsing the Act I Duet with Verdi:

    You may think that I'm exaggerating, but it was rehearsed more than a hundred and fifty times so that it might be closer to speech than to singing, the Maestro would say. Now listen to this. On the evening of the final rehearsal, with the theatre full, we were dressed and ready, the orchestra in place, the chorus on stage, when Verdi made a sign to me and Varesi, and called us backstage: he asked us — as a favor to him — to rehearse that damned duet again at the piano.
    Varesi, fed up with this extraordinary request, tried raising his voice a little, saying: "For God's sake, we've already rehearsed it a hundred and fifty times!"
    "You won't be saying that in a half hour's time: it will be one hundred and fifty-one by then."
    We were forced to obey the tyrant. I still remember the threatening looks Varesi shot at him; with his fist on the hilt of his sword, he seemed to be about to slaughter Verdi, as he would later slaughter King Duncan. However, he yielded, resigning himself; and the one hundred and fifty-first rehearsal took place.

If any musical dramatist ever knew exactly what he wanted, it was Giuseppe Verdi. May his extraordinary words continue to help us bring to life the spirit of his music.

Philip Gossett, the Robert W. Reneker Distinguished Service Professor at The University of Chicago, is general editor of The Works of Giuseppe Verdi and Works of Gioachino Rossini for Bärenreiter-Verlag, Kassel and author of Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera (Chicago, 2006).

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