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Verdi’s Two Macbeths – by David Lawton

by Luca

Dearest Father-in-law, For a long time it has been an intention of mine to dedicate an opera to you who have been to me at once father, benefactor, and friend. […] Here now is this Macbeth, which I love in preference to my other operas, and thus deem more worthy of being presented to you. The heart offers it; may the heart receive it, and may it be a witness to the eternal memory, the gratitude, and the love felt for you by your affectionate G. Verdi
Verdi to Antonio Barezzi, 25 March 1847

The original version of Macbeth (1847), Verdi’s tenth opera and his first encounter with Shakespeare, has long been considered a turning point in the composer’s early career. His deeply personal dedication of this work to his beloved father-in-law, Antonio Barezzi, reveals that he was fully aware of its importance. The care he lavished on the forging of the libretto, the composition of the music, and every aspect of production is strikingly evident in the correspondence that documents the genesis of this groundbreaking work. Once Verdi and the Impresario Alessandro Lanari had agreed to the “fantastical genre” for the opera that he was to compose for the Teatro della Pergola in Florence, 1847, the composer set about choosing the subject. As usual, the selection of a subject was bound up with the availability of particular singers. When Lanari was unable to contract a suitable primo tenore, Verdi actively sought, and obtained the services of the baritone Felice Varesi for title role in Macbeth. On 4 September 1846 Verdi sent the librettist Francesco Maria Piave a prose draft (“schizzo”) of the whole opera, which he characterized as “clear: unconventional, simple, and short.” He admonished Piave that in the poetic lines “there should not be one useless word: everything must say something, and you must adopt a sublime diction, except in the witches’ choruses, which must be trivial, yet bizarre and original.” He asked for the poetry for the opening scene as soon as possible, adding that he could wait longer for the rest of it, because “I know the general character and the tinta as if the libretto were already finished.” As work progressed, Verdi grew increasingly dissatisfied with Piave’s poetry, and his letters became so harsh that it is a wonder that the friendship of the two men survived. At the height of exasperation, he even took the poor poet to task in capitals: “(ALWAYS BEAR IN MIND: USE FEW WORDS…FEW WORDS…FEW, FEW BUT SIGNIFICANT.)” In the end, Verdi turned to his friend Andrea Maffei for help in revising those parts of Piave’s libretto with which he was least satisfied. Many years later the composer stated that these included the witches’ chorus in Act III, and the sleepwalking scene, both rewritten by Maffei, who also made numerous small changes in Acts I and II. On 15 October 1846, the composer also sent a copy of the “schizzo” to Lanari to address the production challenges: “In short, the things that need special attention in this work are: Chorus and Machinery.” For the former, he was thinking of the excellent women required for the two witches’ choruses, and for the latter, the appearance of Banquo’s ghost in the Banquet scene in Act II, as well as the apparitions and the “shew of Kings” in Act III. He also noted that he would need “dancers for a graceful little ballet at the end of Act III,” and offered to have the set and costume designs made for the production. In a letter of 21 January 1847, Verdi proposed to have a machine called the “fantasmagorìa” constructed in Milan for the scene of the apparitions. Although this primitive projector was indeed built and shipped to Florence, in the end it could not be used, because the management refused to allow the total darkness in the theatre required for its effective operation. Letters Verdi wrote years later offer possible solutions to the staging of the apparition scene, one with an elaborate drawing. Concerning the appearance of Banquo’s ghost, Verdi wrote Léon Escudier in 1865: “I had Banquo appear (with a large wound on his forehead) through a trapdoor from underground, precisely in Macbeth’s place. He did not move, but only raised his head at the proper moment.” Well before the rehearsals were to begin in Florence, Verdi sent Felice Varesi (Macbeth) and Marianna Barbieri-Nini (Lady Macbeth) their complete vocal parts so they could learn them before the rehearsal period. The letters accompanying their music are full of detailed instructions, including this astonishing recommendation to Varesi: “I’ll never stop urging you to study the dramatic situation and the words well; the music will come by itself. In a word, I’d rather you served the poet better than you serve the composer.” The premiere of the original version of Macbeth, originally planned for 12 March 1847, had to be postponed by two days because of Varesi’s indisposition. The production had a run of nine performances, and was a triumphant success. From 1847 to 1865 this version continued to be produced every year in Italian theaters, as well as in numerous international houses on the Italian circuit.

[…] I have looked through Macbeth with the aim of writing the ballet music, but alas!, on reading through this music I was struck by things that I would not have wished to find. To say it all in a word, there are certain numbers that are either weak or lacking in character, which is worse still […]
Verdi to Léon Escudier, 22 October 1864

The impetus to revise Macbeth came from Léon Escudier, who had asked the composer to add a few “airs de ballet” to his score (above and beyond the dance in which water spirits and sylphs revive Macbeth in Act III), and compose a new choral finale for the end of the opera, for the Théâtre-Lyrique in Paris, 1865. As the above letter indicates, the task turned out to be far greater than Verdi had anticipated. It is not surprising that at the distance of eighteen years and fifteen operas from 1847, the composer would find much in his score that no longer satisfied him. In the end, he revised or retouched some eight out of the fourteen musical numbers of the opera. Three of them required new texts and music: a new aria for Lady Macbeth at the beginning of Act II (“La luce langue”), a duet for Lady Macbeth and Macbeth (“Ora di morte”) at the end of Act III to replace Macbeth’s original cabaletta, and the new choral ending of the opera, instead of Macbeth’s death scene. For the new texts Verdi turned again to Francesco Maria Piave. He added the ballet, obligatory for Paris, after the witches’ chorus in Act III, and considered it of great importance, insisting on its inclusion in Italian productions as well. At the beginning of Act IV Verdi retained the original words of the chorus of Scottish refugees, but replaced its original musical setting with a completely new one. Many of the other alterations to the 1847 score preserve the original overall structure, but alter numerous details, including changes to the orchestration to meet the demands of the Parisian public for more sophisticated orchestral writing. Verdi did not attend the premiere of the new version at the Théâtre-Lyrique in 1865, although he sent Escudier numerous detailed letters with suggestions for its musical and theatrical realization during the rehearsal period. The premiere of the new version —sung in French to a translation by Charles Nuitter and Beaumont— took place at the Théâtre Lyrique on 21 April 1865. The production ran for 13 performances, but the box office receipts were unfavorable, and the critical response negative.
[…] One [critic] states that I didn’t know Shakespeare when I wrote Macbeth. Oh, in this they are very wrong. It may be that I have not rendered Macbeth well, but that I don’t know, don’t understand, and don’t feel Shakespeare — no, by God, no. He is a favorite poet of mine, whom I have had in my hands from earliest youth, and whom I read and reread constantly.
Verdi to Léon Escudier, 28 April 1865
Elsewhere I have suggested that there were three reasons for the failure of the new Macbeth in Paris: the hostility of the French press towards the music of Verdi, competition with the premiere of Meyerbeer’s last opera L’Africaine at the Opéra, and unauthorized alterations to Verdi’s score. The opera fared no better in Italy; in fact, only two productions have been documented in Italy during Verdi’s lifetime. The first opened at La Scala, Milan, on 28 January 1874 (scene and costume designs for it are displayed in this booklet), and the other at the Teatro Comunale in Modena a year later. For the remainder of the 19th century, Italian and international opera companies performed only the original, 1847 version. Not until after World War I did the revised version take its rightful place in the operatic repertory, gaining the esteem that it now enjoys among operagoers.


David Lawton is Professor of Music at Stony Brook University. A freelance opera conductor and noted Verdi scholar, he edited the critical editions of Il trovatore and both versions of Macbeth in The Works of Giuseppe Verdi, a joint publication of the University of Chicago Press and the Casa Ricordi. All of the English translations of Verdi’s letters in this essay are from David Rosen and Andrew Porter, editors, Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’: A Sourcebook, (New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1984).