Program notes by George W. Martin
In 1847 when Verdi, for the first of three times chose Shakespeare as a source –Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff – he had never seen a Shakespeare play performed. And to read them he had chiefly two bad Italian translations, one in flossy verse that gave Lady Macbeth a first name, Margherita, and another in prose that has been described as “quite simply, execrable.” Considering such obstacles, Verdi’s grasp of the play was remarkable.
His first version of the opera, in Italian, for Florence in 1847, was successful in Italy and elsewhere, but not in English-speaking countries where audiences inclined to dismiss it as a travesty of a near-perfect play. Eighteen years later, for a mix of financial and theatrical reasons, Verdi revised the opera for a production in Paris, adding a ballet and a new choral finale, as well as replacing an aria for Lady Macbeth and making smaller changes throughout.
This revised version, though translated into French, failed in France and even when performed in its original Italian did not dislodge its predecessor until the twentieth century. Then, usually shorn of its ballet, it was preferred. As that switch suggests, the difference between versions is not clearly decisive. The original undeniably has greater unity of tone, the revision, greater richness of sound and, here and there, subtlety of characterization. But in both, Verdi’s view of Macbeth is the same.
For him, as he wrote in 1865, the witches “dominate the drama; everything derives from them.” And in 1846 he had told Alessandro Lasnari, the opera’s original producer: “In short, the things that need special care in this work are: Chorus and Machinery.” By the latter he chiefly meant the appearances to Macbeth of Banquo’s ghost, of the three apparitions, and the procession of kings (Banquo’s descendants). Verdi insisted, for instance, that Banquo’s ghost must be “the same actor that played Banquo in Act I . . . [and] must have ruffled hair and various wounds visible on his neck.” The super-natural was to surround, instigate, and make clear an otherwise quite human story of Macbeth’s ambition and its consequences for himself and his Lady.
For both Verdi and Shakespeare, the story of Macbeth is not of a man like Oedipus, who, struggling to avoid his fate, is doomed to enact it, but one of moral choices. In the first scene, for instance, though Banquo hears the witches, he declines to act on their prophecies, either to further or hinder them. Macbeth acts to hasten their fulfillment, murdering Duncan, Banquo, and Macduff’s family, though at each step other choices are open. The drama is one of choosing to follow one’s worst instincts. And note: the witches, in stating their prophecies, never urge, or even imply, that Macbeth should act on them. The witches merely present ideas, much as ideas of evil-doing rise in a man’s mind, whether he will or not. What he does with them is up to him.
Verdi’s revisions are most noticeable at the start of Act II and at the opera’s end. Act II opens with a dialogue between Macbeth and his Lady in which she questions his resolve to kill Banquo. Convinced of his determination, in the original version she rejoices in an aria, “Trionfai!” (I have won!), in which she runs up and down the scale, scattering high Cs, and in a second verse, repeats the display. Throughout, she is confident. In the revision, she has first to steel herself to another murder, and only towards the end of the aria rejoices in it. Not only is the music more varied and richly orchestrated, the characterization is more subtle: Her hesitation foreshadows her decline into haunted dreams.
The effect of the revised finale is debated. Originally, Verdi closed the opera with an aria for the dying Macbeth, followed only by a shout of victory from Macduff and the chorus. In the revision, Macduff and Macbeth leave the stage fighting, and Macbeth’s death is reported. Then the chorus of soldiers and the Scottish people have a hymn of victory, hailing the end of tyranny and the start of peace. The music is exciting, and because the chorus began the act with a lament on the country’s ruin under Macbeth’s rule, their joy at the end gives the act a musical balance. But by cutting Macbeth’s dying aria, to some extent Verdi diminished the title role. Hence, in some productions of the revised version Macbeth’s final aria is included. Truth is: both versions have virtues, and happily, at Sarasota this year we can hear both.
George W. Martin has written several books on Verdi, including his often reissued biography, Verdi, His Music, Life and Times.