Verdi, Shakespeare, and Game of Thrones converge in Opera North’s production of Macbeth. The warrior Macbeth fights on the side of the King of Scotland – but when a coven of witches prophesy that he shall become king himself, a ruthless ambition drives Macbeth and his wife to horrific acts. Experience Verdi at his most theatrical in this opera that positively bristles with demonic energy.
LEBANON OPERA HOUSE, LEBANON NH
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Verdi's Favorite Opera
“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.
Soprano Birgit Nilsson as Lady Macbeth
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?
—Sean Parr, PhD, Associate Professor of Music, Saint Anselm College; ON Studio Artist 1997 and 1998
The Story of Macbeth
In a wood beside a battlefield, Macbeth and Banquo, generals in King Duncan's army, come upon a group of witches who hail Macbeth by his title, Thane of Glamis, but follow with “Thane of Cawdor and King hereafter." Banquo is greeted as "lesser than Macbeth, but greater," never a king himself, but the progenitor of future kings. The prophesies disturb the men, especially Banquo, who is horrified by the veracity of the witches' predictions when messengers announce that Macbeth has been made Thane of Cawdor.
In the castle, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband describing his meeting with the witches, and she reflects that, in order for the prophecy to come true, King Duncan must be killed. She convinces Macbeth to commit the crime as the King arrives to spend the night as a guest, and Macbeth, first emboldened to carry out the murder, is then filled with horror. Disgusted at his cowardice, Lady Macbeth completes the crime, incriminating the sleeping guards by smearing them with Duncan's blood. In the morning, the nobleman Macduff goes to wake the king and is horrified by what he finds. Everyone rushes to the scene to condemn this act of treason.
Macbeth is now king. Duncan's son and rightful heir, Malcolm, has fled the country, wrongly suspected of his father's murder. But Macbeth is still disturbed by the prophecy that Banquo, and not he, will father a great royal line. To prevent this, he tells his wife that he will have Banquo and Banquo’s son, Fleance, murdered.
Macbeth’s assassins ambush Banquo and Fleance but the plan is only partially successful. Banquo is killed but Fleance manages to escape.
At a banquet Lady Macbeth extols the joys of their reign, but the festive atmosphere is interrupted by one of the assassins who recounts what has happened. Macbeth, seeing Banquo's ghost appear before him, speaks wildly, denying his guilt, to the confusion and terror of the guests. Lady Macbeth urges him to compose himself, but Macduff resolves to leave the country, recognizing that it is ruled by a cursed hand. The banquet ends with the guests’ frightened departure as Macbeth resolves to seek the witches’ prophesies again.
Macbeth questions the witches who call up a series of apparitions. The first tells Macbeth to beware of Macduff; the second, that no man born of woman will harm him; and the third, that he cannot be conquered till Birnam Wood marches against him. Macbeth is then shown the ghost of Banquo and eight kings, which causes him to faint. When he awakens, he tells his wife about his encounter and they resolve to kill Banquo's son, as well as Macduff and his family.
The Scottish people lament the fate of their country now that it is at the mercy of a tyrant. The latest victims are Macduff's wife and children, though not Macduff himself. Malcolm and Macduff prepare a revolt against Macbeth. Every soldier will advance towards the castle obscured by a branch cut from nearby Birnam Wood.
Lady Macbeth, watched over by a doctor and lady-in-waiting, walks in her sleep, wringing her hands and trying to clean them of blood. She laments the deaths of Duncan and Banquo, and even the brutal slaughter of Macduff's family.
Macbeth, hearing news of the Queen's death, reacts with indifference. An army of Scottish rebels, backed by England, is advancing, but he is reassured by the words of the apparition that no man born of woman can harm him. When he discovers that Birnam Wood is “moving” towards him he believes he has been deceived. Macbeth confronts Macduff, but Macduff explains that he was not born, but untimely ripped from his mother's womb. Macduff kills the treacherous Macbeth and the people sing a hymn to victory and peace as Malcolm ascends to the throne.