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Lady Macbeth as a witch – From the essay by Daniel Albright “The witches and the witch: Verdi’s Macbeth”

by Luca

In some ways the Gran Scena e Duetto of Act I is far more of a black sabbath than anything found in the witches’ own music. At the beginning of the scene Verdi notes in the score that the singers must sing in a hushed and dark voice, unless instructed otherwise. Verdi wanted something that was, as far as I know,
unprecedented in the domain of nineteenth-century Italian opera, a set-piece that was melodically intense – not recitative – and yet took place in some boundary region between speech and song. A letter of Verdi’s (7 January 1847) to the baritone who created the role of Macbeth, Felice Varesi, makes this point clear: ‘I’d rather you served the poet better than you serve the composer. . . . In the grand duet . . . Note that it’s night; everyone is asleep, and this whole duet will have to be sung sotto voce, but in a hollow voice such as to arouse terror’. Verdi was often to repeat this advice. The word ‘hollow’ (‘cupo’) governed Verdi’s whole imagination of Macbeth; it is a subterranean sort of opera, as if the performance were constituted within a cave, or as if the singers each sang from within a private abyss. Indeed words such as ‘cupo’ and ‘gufo’ (‘owl’) seem to brood over the text – perhaps theepigrams about immobility and irreparability, with their i-V half-cadences, their soft falls of a third, in some sense reproduce the sound-tint of these very words. In this
opera, even more than Otello, Verdi comes closest to realising the old dream of the inventors of opera, a tragedy in which speech rises effortlessly, imperceptibly, into song. When Verdi in 1875 compared his achievement to Wagner’s, he noted, ‘I, too, have attempted the fusion of music and drama . . . and that in Macbeth’. Verdi hadn’t yet written Otello or Falstaff, but in those late operas he approached Shakespeare through the highly wrought, semi-opaque medium of Boito’s poetry and dramaturgy, whereas Piave provided a fairly clear image of the original Jacobean text.
Verdi’s great achievement in this liminal area far beneath bel canto, where singers make whispery harsh sounds, is the duet ‘Fatal mia donna!’ – an astonishing psychological study of the tremors of spiritual remorse combined with the hilarity of gratified ambition. The large-scale dramatic rhythm of the duet is terror followed by mockery of terror. We saw this rhythm – first, solemn prophecy, then, happy sneer – during the witches’ prophecy to Banquo in Act I; and Lady, by aping their behaviour, is turning before our eyes into another witch. When Macbeth, fresh from killing Duncan, tells his wife that he felt like saying ‘Amen’ as the footmen were praying ‘May God help us’, she interjects ‘Follie!’, decorating her line with bright
little grace notes, as if she were playing the role of his private Vice, an internal voice laughing at his scruples. Macbeth tells her of the voice that accuses him of murdering sleep, ‘avrai per guanciali sol vepri, o Macbetto’ (‘you will have only thorns for a pillow, O Macbeth’). Lady immediately quotes this tune back to him, suggesting that the phantom voice was really saying ‘Sei vano, o Macbetto, ma privo d’ardire’ (‘you are vain, O Macbeth, but not bold enough’).
Lady recasts Macbeth’s B flat minor phrase in a jingly, cheerful B flat major – a parody that again suggests the effect of psychic intimacy she is trying to achieve, as if she were a second point of view inside Macbeth’s skull, offering alternative interpretations for the same event. Lady infects Macbeth’s imagination by echoing him – we are back to the prison-of-echoes game from earlier in the scene. She attempts to regularise his musical discourse, to fetch him out of a traumatic realm of minor keys, diminished chords, black cadences, sudden silences and hesitations, fragmentary phrases, oracular ambiguities, into a straightforward, major-key domain of resolute action. But by quoting Macbeth she seems less to shake him out of his madness than to join him in it – as if she were a psychiatrist beset by counter-transference, following her patient a little too far into psychosis. By encouraging Macbeth to bring the witches’ prophecy to pass, she becomes in effect another witch – her very lack of a first name seems to abstract her from society, from the realm of nameable deeds. Near the climax of the duet, Lady, exasperated, decides to incriminate the footmen herself;
she manages to exit the stage, smear blood, and return to the stage in a space of sixteen bars of quick music – she works in witch’s time, foreshortened and accelerated, not human time. Harold Powers has studied with great care and sensitivity the ratios of stage action to musical action in Verdi’s operas; he points out that excited music, as in cabalettas, often implies stasis on stage, and that the actors were permitted to move only at specific points in an aria, duet or finale. I think of Lady’s super-fast exit and re-entrance as almost a parody of the tempo di mezzo, the kinetic interlude just before cabaletta or stretta. Time is becoming unnatural; the clock is out of whack.
Despite her recommendations of directness, forward thrust, Lady seems strangely shapeless and helpless, as if she had no identity except what she could borrow from others. She is happiest when singing other people’s music, or pre-existing public display pieces such as the brindisi; left to her own devices she tends to adopt the musical mannerisms of the witches – she has never heard the witches, but it seems that she can hear everything Macbeth hears, even hallucinatory voices. Near the beginning of the first act, the witches utter dark spells, then laugh at themselves; near the end of the first act, Macbeth utters dark spells, then Lady laughs at him. The Macbeths effortlessly fall into a sort of actors’ class exercise in playing
witches – an exercise itself devised by witches. For Verdi, the supernatural tends to be a region of mockery. Witches open up a free space where desire may operate in an unusually unconstrained manner. But there is no true safety in the supernatural, for giving in to bad desire leads to extraordinary humiliation – and, with the possible exception of Shakespeare, the master of the candied smile, Verdi was more expert in derision than any artist I know. Detached ‘ha-has’ that threaten to break out into an evil little dance, suppressed titters faintly registered by the orchestra, vocal trills gone giddy with malice – what composer can compete with Verdi in such effects? Most of Verdi’s witches are surrogates for Fate, deriding mankind; and when Lady derides her husband, she assumes the witch role without quite understanding that the only spectacle that delights a witch is the spectacle of ruin.
Verdi provided a clue that he imagined Lady as a kind of witch, or witch manquée, or apprentice Vice, a woman attempting to reconceive herself along diabolical lines. In a letter (8 February 1865) to Léon Escudier, concerning the newly revised French version of Macbeth, Verdi wrote ‘The witches dominate the drama: everything derives from them – coarse and gossipy in the first act, sublime and prophetic in the third. They are truly a character, and a character of the utmost importance. . . . The important character, the dominating demon of this [banquet] scene is Lady Macbeth; and however much Macbeth can distinguish himself as an
actor, Lady Macbeth dominates and controls everything’. The witches dominate the drama, but Lady dominates everything; Verdi never developed an articulate theory about Lady’s relation to the witches, but he evidently understood Lady as a character struggling to achieve the witches’ manipulative force, uncanny authority. Like the witches, she devises impresses spectacles; and like the witches’, her spectacles turn
out to be hollow.