Shakespeare's Macbeth

Verdi’s Favorite Opera: Macbeth

by Sean Parr, PhD, Associate Professor of Music, Saint Anselm College; ON Studio Artist 1997 and 1998

“Death and destruction to that evil lot!” screams Lady Macbeth to her husband in the Act III duet finale of Verdi’s Macbeth. With her forceful insistence that Macbeth must kill Banquo’s son, Verdi’s anti-heroine declares herself the source of Macbeth’s ruthless, overreaching ambition. To be sure, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth urges her husband to murder King Duncan early in the play, but Verdi takes her bloodthirst to a new level, expanding her role in the tragedy beyond the original Shakespeare.

As often happens in many of Verdi’s great operas, the presence of a highly characterized (and singular) soprano role calls attention to itself, but we also know that Verdi wanted a different kind of vocalism for Lady Macbeth: a “harsh, covered, dark timbre,” “the voice of a devil.”

So intent was Verdi on delivering a shockingly intense character who motivates and amplifies her husband’s malice and greed that the composer himself rehearsed the Act I duet with the singers purportedly over 150 times!

This evidence of the great care Verdi took with Macbeth betrays the fact that Verdi regarded it as his favorite opera (the work “which I love in preference to my other operas”). Indeed, Verdi gushed with enthusiasm about the project in a letter to his librettist, Francesco Piave: “This tragedy is one of the greatest creations of the human spirit. If we can’t do something great with it, let’s at least try to do something extraordinary.”

Verdi spent many years working on Macbeth, eventually settling on the revised 1865 version as the authoritative one that he claimed aspired to a Wagnerian totality, a “fusion of music and drama.”

The opera is full of strikingly innovative moments: Shakespeare’s three witches turned into a strident, yet exciting female chorus; unsettlingly moving arias—Banquo’s beautiful aria before he is killed and Macduff’s powerful lament after the murder of his children -- rich orchestral colors symbolizing the inner voices of characters; and of course, Lady Macbeth’s mesmerizing sleepwalking scene, in which the composer said “everything is to be sung sotto voce and in such a way as to arouse terror and pity.” The overall shadowy color (or tinta) that pervades Macbeth, arises partially from Verdi’s use of ombra music summoning the supernatural, but also from the opera’s critique of the allure of power.

If such a theme seems too distant, we need only remind ourselves of the current vogue for dystopian dramas, one of which, House of Cards, borrows explicitly from Shakespeare in presenting a diabolical power couple who destroy all those in their path, dooming themselves in the process. Verdi’s musical portrayal of power and corruption in Macbeth can therefore give us pause to wonder: does art still imitate life today?