|About this Recording
8.660259-60 - VERDI, G.: Macbeth (Sferisterio Opera Festival, 2007)
Opera in Four Acts
Macbeth - Giuseppe Altomare
FORM - Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana
‘For a long time I have been thinking of dedicating an opera to you, who have been my father, benefactor and friend. Now here is this Macbeth, which I love more than my other operas and thus believe it more worthy of being presented to you. The heart offers it; may the heart accept it, and may it be a witness to the eternal memory, the gratitude and the love felt for you by your affectionate G. Verdi.’ March 1847
With these generous words, Verdi dedicated his first Shakespearean opera to Antonio Barezzi, the father of his beloved late wife Margherita who had died in 1840.
Verdi was truly inspired by his subject when he set to work on Macbeth in the early autumn of 1846. Aged only 32, it would be his tenth opera in less than eight years and the finished work shows his developing maturity and individual style. He was justifiably pleased with the results and it long remained his own favourite among his ‘early period’ operas; but during composition he encountered serious problems with the librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, who had originally seemed to be the ideal writer for the purpose. Piave had previously prepared texts for Verdi’s Ernani and I due Foscari (both first produced in 1844) and would later collaborate on Rigoletto (1851), La Traviata (1853) and Simon Boccanegra (1857) among other operas. But Verdi found the proffered Macbeth libretto too verbose; during a difficult period of composition, his letter to Piave contained wise advice:
‘Always keep this in mind…use few words…few words…few but significant’.
Still Piave’s work did not satisfy and eventually the composer invited his friend Andrea Maffei, the noted poet and translator, to help complete the libretto.
Macbeth was originally intended for first performance at Mantua’s Teatro Sociale, but the contract was passed instead to Alessandro Lanari, impresario at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence; and it was there, on 14 March 1847, that the opera was presented. The cast included Marianna Barbieri-Nini and Felice Varesi, whose polished performances justified the many hours of rehearsal that Verdi demanded. On the opening night several numbers were encored, with the composer, who conducted, taking thirty calls at the final curtain.
Verdi is famously quoted for the vocal qualities he demanded of his leading soprano:
‘I don’t want Lady Macbeth to sing at all…Lady Macbeth’s voice should be hard, stifled and dark’. And he certainly found what he sought in his prima donna. The rôle of Macbeth brought the baritone Varesi considerable personal success which, he later said, was the most important of his career. Verdi and his cast had triumphed, and that in a country which knew little of Shakespeare from staged productions of his plays. The composer himself had read them (as had his coeval Berlioz, who was, if anything, an even greater admirer of the Bard) and it is posterity’s loss that his plans to write an opera based on King Lear never came to fruition.
Following the première in Florence, other Italian opera houses were eager to present their own productions of Macbeth and within three years its initial success led to further stagings in New York and Dublin, with performances at Covent Garden also planned. This latter project foundered, however, and it was over a hundred years before the opera was finally seen in London.
But it was to London that his next new opera took Verdi. Not to Covent Garden, but to Her Majesty’s Theatre where, just four months after Macbeth’s opening night, he conducted I Masnadieri with Jenny Lind on stage and Queen Victoria in the audience. Verdi was now striding towards his productive ‘middle period’ and during the next eighteen years he composed (or prepared new versions of) no fewer than thirteen operas, commissioned by theatres throughout Italy, in Paris and St Petersburg. He soon became (perhaps with the sole exception of the patriot Garibaldi) the most famous man in Italy.
Eighteen years on, to 1865; his recent opera La forza del destino had been well received in Russia when a request from Paris turned Verdi’s thoughts again to Macbeth. The Théâtre Lyrique invited him to prepare a new version, to be sung in French translation, incorporating substantial changes to the original score. He accepted the challenge, working hard and with some difficulty, amending sections that needed improvement and introducing some dramatic new musical material. Having patched up his earlier differences with Piave, Verdi invited the librettist to submit new text, which included changes to the first act duet for Macbeth and his Lady, a new aria—‘La luce langue’—for Lady Macbeth in Act 2, a fresh duet to close Act 3 and re-writing both the chorus ‘Patria oppressa’ and the thrilling battle scene in the final act. Paris, as always, demanded an extended ballet sequence and Verdi added one to please his French public.
Yet again Piave proved troublesome but Verdi was able to complete his task ready for the Paris première on 21 April 1865. His alterations undoubtedly improved the already remarkable score, but the opera did not find favour during the run of performances, despite the fine singing of the principals Jean Vital Ismael and Inez Rey-Balla. One French critic claimed, for example, that Verdi did not know Shakespeare, a charge against which he passionately defended himself:
‘Oh, they are terribly wrong. Perhaps I did not realise Macbeth fully enough; but that I do not know it, that I do not understand it, and I don’t have a feeling for Shakespeare, no, by God, no. He is favourite poet of mine, whose works I had in my hands from my early youth and read and re-read all the time’.
After this disappointment Verdi busied himself with new ideas; the King Lear project was considered, then rejected, and he settled on Don Carlos, based on Schiller’s play, as his next enterprise for the Paris Opéra. Macbeth was all but forgotten.
It was another sixty years before conductors and singers again showed interest in the neglected masterpiece. In 1928 Macbeth was presented in Dresden, where Fritz Busch was Music Director, and in the twenty years that followed several further productions were seen in Germany, Italy and Austria. Particularly notable from that period was the first British staging, at Glyndebourne in 1938 (conducted by Busch) and revived for the first Edinburgh Festival in 1947, where Margherita Grandi and Francesco Valentino took the leads. Macbeth was also performed in wartime Vienna in 1943 with Elisabeth Höngen and Hans Hotter, conducted by Karl Böhm; at La Scala, Milan (1952, with Maria Callas and Enzo Mascherini, conductor de Sabata), at the Metropolitan Opera, New York (1959, with Leonie Rysanek and Leonard Warren, conductor Leinsdorf), and (finally!) at Covent Garden, London (1960, Amy Shuard and Tito Gobbi, conductor Molinari-Pradelli).
In the last fifty years Macbeth has taken its rightful place in the repertoires of opera houses throughout the world and Verdi’s own belief in the piece has been vindicated; but why did it take so long to be accepted as the great work it is?
The 1865 Paris version (sung in Italian) is almost invariably performed these days, as it is on the present DVD, recorded with the forces of the Sferisterio Opera Festival, Macerata, Italy. Some productions retain sections of the original fourth act whilst also including Verdi’s revision of the battle scene (a case of double value for money) and occasionally the original 1847 version has been performed as composed, but this is more in the interests of satisfying historical curiosity than a serious attempt at re-instatement.
The last word should go to Verdi’s friend Emanuele Muzio, who wrote to Macbeth’s dedicatee Antonio Barezzi in 1846, during the early stages of the opera’s composition:
‘What sublime music! I tell you that there are things in it that make your hair stand on end! Writing this music is taking a great deal out of him but it is coming out very, very well!’
With acknowledgments to Verdi—A biography by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, published by Oxford University Press, 1993, from which the quotations by Verdi and Muzio have been taken.
© Paul Campion, 2009
The action takes place in Scotland during the 11th century.
 Prelude comprising themes from the witches’ scenes and Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene.
Scene 1: A barren heath
 The witches await the arrival of Macbeth, Thane of Glamis.
 As he enters with Banquo, the witches predict that Macbeth shall soon be further ennobled and that Banquo shall be the father of kings, though not a king himself. Messengers come with news of Macbeth’s newly-granted title, Thane of Cawdor.
 He and Banquo are amazed that one of the prophecies has been so quickly fulfilled and, as the two men depart…
…the witches continue their wild chorus and dance. Scene 2: A hall in Macbeth’s castle.
 Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband, which tells of the extraordinary predictions. Her ambitions are aroused and, when an imminent visit from King Duncan is announced…
…she sees the opportunity to bring to fruition another of the prophecies—that Macbeth shall soon be king.
 Macbeth and his wife determine on murder—just as Duncan himself enters the castle.
 When Duncan has retired for the night, Macbeth follows and stabs him as he sleeps.
 He returns with blood-soaked hands and Lady Macbeth snatches the dagger from him, taking it back to the scene of the crime, thus hoping to implicate the king’s guards in the murder.
 Macduff arrives with Banquo and they discover the dead king’s body.
 The horror of the night’s events is expressed by Macbeth, his wife, the guests and courtiers.
Scene 1: A room in the castle.
 Macbeth and his Lady know that, in order to realise their unquenchable ambition, Banquo and his son Fleance have to die.
 Lady Macbeth shows her pitiless resolve as Banquo’s fate is sealed.
Scene 2: A park.
 Murderers lie in wait for Banquo.
 He reveals his fearful forebodings to Fleance but, as the assassins strike his father, the boy makes his escape.
Scene 3: The banqueting hall.
 Macbeth is now king and he and his wife are hosting a banquet.
 While Lady Macbeth drinks cheerfully to the good times to come, one of the assassins reports news of Banquo’s murder to Macbeth. As the guests take their places at table, Banquo’s ghost appears to Macbeth. Terrified, he challenges the phantom as Lady Macbeth attempts to keep the party in good spirits, with the forced gaiety of her drinking song. Macbeth loses his nerve as his wife accuses him of cowardice and…
…the guests express alarm as their hosts’ guilty secrets are revealed.
Scene: The witches’ cave.
 The witches are concocting fearsome spells and…
…during a ballet, Hecate, goddess of the Underworld, appears.
 As Macbeth arrives, the witches invoke a series of apparitions warning of future dangers to his life, which he regards with little concern.
 Eight ghostly kings pass by, the last being Banquo, whose son still lives as a threat to Macbeth’s kingship.
 Lady Macbeth inspires renewed determination in her husband’s heart and together they swear vengeance against any who would challenge their ambitions.
Scene 1: A deserted spot near Birnam, close to the English border.
 Scottish refugees grieve at the suffering of their homeland.
 Macduff, whose wife and children have been killed by Macbeth, seeks revenge on their murderer.
 Macduff and Malcolm swear to destroy the royal villain who has caused such misery to his people. Scene 2: A hall in Macbeth’s castle.
 A Doctor and a Lady’s Maid await the appearance of Lady Macbeth, who has been seen sleepwalking.
 Her maddened conscience reveals her past crimes and she re-lives the murder of Duncan, trying to wash her blood-stained hands. Still asleep, she returns to bed and to her guilt-ridden death.
Scene 3: A battlefield
 Macbeth, ever arrogant but now entirely alone…
…reflects on the terrible course his life has taken.
 He learns of his wife’s death and blames his soldiers for betraying him. Still believing himself safe from his adversaries he fights, but is killed by Macduff.
 Macbeth’s enemies proclaim their victory over evil and greet Malcolm as their new king, with Fleance and his line to succeed in due course.
© Paul Campion, 2009
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