BACKGROUND

Having been an admirer of Shakespeare's works, it is no surprise that Verdi wrote a number of operas based on some of his most famous plays (such as Otello and Falstaff). Perhaps the most well known of these is Macbeth (curiously, Verdi did not read the original until after the composition of the opera), which was commissioned by Teatro della Pergola, Florence.
Verdi commenced work in 1846, putting music to an Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei. The text by Piave was based on an 1838 translation by Carlo Rusconi eight years earlier. Maffei was to rewrite some of Piave's text.
MacbethThere were some notable differences between the Shakespeare play and the Verdi opera. The three witches became a chorus of witches in the opera, for example, while the revised version ended with a bombastic choral ending provided by celebratory bards and various others. The revised version of Verdi's Macbeth came about after he was asked to provide extra music for a performance at Paris' Theatre-Lyrique Imperial du Chatelet. A revision of Verdi's saw the composer make a number of changes. These included a ballet in the third act, extra music for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in the first and third acts, and the change of Macbeth's original aria at the conclusion to a bombastic hymn. Intriguingly, the revised version was not so well received, but it did become the norm in later performances.
Despite the comparative failure in 1865 of the revised version, the original proved to be a success and was a favourite of Verdi's – the composer even dedicated it to his former father-in-law, Antonio Barezzi.

FIRST PERFORMED

c. 11th March 1847

NOTABLE PERFORMANCES

11th March 1847 – Teatro della Pergola, Florence, Italy
April 1850 – New York, America
October 1860 – Manchester, Britain
21st April 1865 – Theatre-Lyrique Imperial du Chatelet, Paris, France

THE PLOT

On a misty heath beside a battlefield, Macbeth and his friend Banco come across a group of witches who claim to have predicted the future. A number of prophecies have been claimed – Macbeth is to become Thane of Glamis and Cawdor, and will eventually become King. Meanwhile, Banco is said to be the founder of a line of future kings. The prophecies look set to come true when it is announced that Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor.
When she learns of the prophecies, Lady Macbeth is hell-bent on Macbeth seizing the throne – even at the cost of murder. She persuades Macbeth to kill the current King, Duncan. Despite his appalled reluctance, Macbeth agrees, framing the assassination on a group of guards.
Having secured the throne, Macbeth is troubled by the earlier prophecy concerning Banco and his link to the throne. He sends guards to kill Banco, but his son Fleazio escapes this fate. At a banquet, having learned of Banco's death, he is horrified to see the ghost of Banco sitting in his place.
Demanding answers, Macbeth returns to the dwelling place of the witches, whereupon they announce three further statements in the form of three apparitions. The apparitions warn Macbeth of Macduff, explain that Macbeth cannot be harmed by a man born of woman and that the march of Birnam Wood will signify his downfall. Macbeth is also shown eight future kings who are the descendants of Banco.
Macbeth tells his wife of what has happened and they vow to seek and kill both Fleazio and Macduff and his family. In the original version, Macbeth simply vows to assert his authority.
In Birnam Wood, Macduff is devastated by the deaths of his wife and children. Along with Duncan's son, Malcolm, they and the English army attack Macbeth's army. Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, is overcome with guilt, sleepwalking and attempting to rid her hands of blood. She ultimately dies, leaving Macbeth to battle on against the troops.
There are two endings, from both the original and revised versions. In the original, Macbeth learns that Macduff was not born naturally, having been ripped out from his mother's womb. Macbeth dies at the hands of Macduff, and sings one last aria, lamenting how his misplaced trust in the prophecies of hell have led to this moment. In the revised conclusion, after learning of Macduff's unnatural birth, Macbeth is killed offstage, with a triumphant Macduff announcing his victory to a joyous army. The opera ends with a victory hymn.

THE CHARACTERS

* Macbeth – The main protagonist, anti-hero noble of Scotland. Based on historical King Macbeth of Scotland.
* Lady Macbeth – The unscrupulously ambitious wife of Macbeth. Later suffers enormous guilt for her part in Duncan's murder.
* Banco (Banquo) – Initially a friend and ally of Macbeth before becoming an obstacle to Macbeth's power.
* Macduff – Thane of Fife. Macbeth's nemesis and ultimate killer.
* Duncan – King of Scotland and victim of Macbeth.
* Fleanzio – Banquo's son.

Macbeth

ANALYSIS

Out of the Shakespeare plays that Verdi adapted, Macbeth remains one of the best known and celebrated examples.
Given that many of Verdi's operas revolve around tragedy, the selection of Macbeth is highly apt. In the end, Macbeth's fate is sealed by his own misplaced faith in the supernatural forces that have mapped out his last days as both a ruler and a fallen leader.
Macbeth does stand out from the crowd in a number of ways, with respect to Verdi's work. For one thing, it is not an opera that revolves around the theme of love. There are no examples of unrequited love or battles for the hand of another. Instead, the emphasis is more on power – in this instance, the prophecy that Macbeth will take the throne, only to be thwarted by the actions of a man who is not of natural birth.
Another notable aspect of Macbeth is that Verdi elected to change various aspects of the Shakespeare original. One of the most prominent changes is the greater emphasis on Lady Macbeth, a woman allegedly envisaged as ugly, evil and desperate for her husband to be ruler, even at the cost of taking another's life. Lady Macbeth gets a number of notable scenes, a good example being the scene in which she sleepwalks. This particular scene still manages to remind us that behind the power-hungry character is still a woman plagued by self-doubt, worry and even guilt. This is cleverly recalled in Verdi's score. The vivid string motif represents the frantic rubbing of blood from her hands, while the repetition of a mournful horn cleverly echoes the night of Duncan's murder, when the horn motif represented the call of an owl.
The depiction of the witches is another striking change. In the original play, Macbeth sees prophecies of the future from a trio of ghoulish hags. In Verdi's version, this is changed to a chorus of witches, but Verdi cleverly structured the chorus to give an unearthly three-tier effect of voices that heightened the supernatural element of the play. The supernatural effect is also realised to perfection in the summoning of future kings. A combination of clarinets, oboes, bassoons and a contrabassoon produce a strikingly odd, ghostly effect.
The common theme of conflict in Verdi's works is present and correct in Macbeth. A musical trick successfully contrasts the mindsets of the anti-hero Macbeth and the more conventional hero, Macduff. An early aria in which Macbeth doubts his destiny is cleverly overlapped with Banquo's misunderstanding of his friend's thoughts ('O, come, s'empie costui d'orgoglio'). This is tempered by a harmonious duet between Macduff and Malcolm near the end, in which the message is clear – the new King can be trusted. The decision to replace Macbeth's original final aria with a hymn of victory adds to this feeling of closure.

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