Macbeth, Verdi, Shakespeare: 10 things you might not know

Ten facts about Verdi's operatic take on a favourite by the Bard.

Royal Opera House, May 19, 2011

Circa 1600, English playwright and poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616). (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

If you’ve only seen Macbeth in its original form, there are significant parallels and dissimilarities between the opera and the play. Verdi was concerned to translate Shakespeare's theatre drama into the different language of opera and something that would work in the (then) modern world. Much as are there are imaginative cuts and condensations, the action of Shakespeare's play is carefully preserved and followed in his opera. The result is something which is both Verdi and Shakespeare.

1. Verdi did not want the soprano playing Lady Macbeth to make a particularly beautiful sound. He wanted her to sing with a tone that could be ‘hard, stifled, and dark’ with ‘something devilish’ in the vocal quality. This was one of the first occasions in the history of opera when a singer was instructed to make such a sound in the service of the drama; when potent characterization was given primacy.

2. Verdi took an intense interest in Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, an interest akin to that of a modern cinema director, careful to capture the physical mannerisms of sleepwalking. He spent a great deal of time coaching the first Lady for the scene. She claimed that she spent months on the part, trying to imitate ‘those who talk in their sleep, uttering words (as Verdi would say to me) while hardly moving their lips, leaving the rest of the face immobile, including the eyes. It was enough to drive one crazy’.

3. Everyone knows that the three witches are essential to Macbeth, but Verdi does without them – he has an entire witches chorus. This was not uncommon in 19th-century productions of Shakespeare’s play, as theatre expert Sarah Lenton writes in the programme for The Royal Opera’s production. Verdi was very particular about the effect he wanted from his witches, telling Francesco Maria Piave, his librettist, that the witches’ choruses ‘must be vulgar, yet bizarre and original (triviali, ma stravaganti ed originali)’. The witches’ diabolic humour acts as a foil to enhance the sublimity of other parts of the opera.

4. Verdi was fascinated by the supernatural – the power of curses in RigolettoIl trovatore and La forza del destino and the prophecies of the fortune-teller in Un ballo in maschera, but only three of his operas contain ghostly beings. Verdi’s early opera Giovanna d’Arco features demons who tempt Joan of Arc, and Don Carlo ends with the appearance of the ghost of Emperor Charles V of Spain. Macbeth is the one of Verdi’s operas most directly concerned with the supernatural, with its witches, the appearance of the ghost of Banquo in Act II and the ‘Show of Kings’ in Act III – a procession of kings, who Macbeth realizes are Banquo and his descendants. Interestingly, King James I of England, for whom Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, was thought to be a descendant of the Scottish lord Banquo of Lochaber on whom the character of Banquo was based.

5. Verdi’s operas are famous for their powerful scenes between lovers, and between fathers and daughters but Macbeth has neither. Instead, Verdi explores the dysfunctional marriage of a middle-aged couple, and the corrupting effect of power.

6. Verdi wrote Macbeth at the age of 34 in 1847. It was his tenth opera. Eighteen years later, he revised the work for a production in Paris at the Théâtre Lyrique, Le Châtelet. He added a new aria for Lady Macbeth in Act II and made substantial alterations to Act III, including a new duet for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and a ballet (now usually cut). A new chorus, of Scottish refugees, was added to the beginning of Act IV. At the end of Act V, Verdi changed the death of Macbeth, having his anti-hero die offstage and ending the work with a new ‘victory’ chorus rejoicing at the death of the tyrant. The Royal Opera perform the 1865 Paris version of Macbeth, which is dramatically more powerful, and closer in atmosphere to Shakespeare’s original play.

7. Verdi spoke little English and would have read Shakespeare in his native Italian, and read it as literature, rather than seeing it performed onstage. It would have lost some of its original poetry and tragic power in translation. Verdi only saw the play Macbeth staged in 1847, the year of the premiere of the first version of his opera Macbeth. Shakespeare was rarely staged in Italy in the 1840s, and Verdi saw the play in a visit to London, some months after the premiere of his opera.

8. By the time Verdi revised Macbeth in 1865, he’d seen the play performed several times, in France, Italy and in England. Each time he saw Shakespeare’s play, he took careful notes on staging. He wrote a long and detailed letter to his Parisian publisher, stating how he wished the opera to be staged. For example, he wanted the ghost of Banquo to rise up through a trapdoor in Act II, with a large wound on his head, and stand immobile, staring at Macbeth. He sent plans of where singers should stand in each act. He also wrote at length on the relative importance of the characters, stating that the most prominent roles were those of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the witches’ chorus, and that Macduff only ‘becomes a Hero’ at the end of the opera.

9. Verdi loved Shakespeare and many think that he is the nearest to Shakespeare in the character of his dramatic genius. Macbeth is the first of his three Shakespearian operas. In the 1880s Verdi began a new collaboration with the writer and composer Arrigo Boito, who wrote librettos for Verdi’s two late great Shakespearean operas: Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893) based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and scenes from his Henry IV plays. For much of his career Verdi also wanted to write an operatic version of King Lear, but couldn’t find the right singers for this project. He also thought about setting Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Hamlet, though neither of these projects were ever developed.

10. Verdi was active in politics, particularly in the attempts – eventually successful – to unite the various Italian states. The theme in Shakespeare’s Macbeth of the downfall of a tyrant and the liberation of a country under occupation particularly appealed to Verdi. Act IV of the opera includes a typical Verdian plea for national freedom, as a chorus of Scottish exiles sing of their longing for their ‘patria’ (homeland), while Act V ends with a victorious chorus as the Scots people hail the return of their rightful king.