Verdi's Macbeth and
the Male Struggle for Power
by Alfred E. Vecchio, Ph.D.
From New Jersey State Opera Review, Spring 1982
For years Verdi had hoped to tackle Shakespeare and in fact had long deliberated to set King Lear to music. The King Lear project never did see the light of day, but this was due not so much to internal factors, but to external circumstances; the determining factor being not aesthetic but of a peculiarly practical, even pragmatic character. When Verdi was asked by the manager of the Teatro Pergola in Florence for an opera to be given in the Carnival or Lenten season of 1847, the composer, his friend Muzio wrote, "is considering three possible subjects: Macbeth, Die Rauber by Schiller (later set to music with the Italian title, / Masnadieri), and Die Ahntrau by Grillparzer". The deciding factor was very simply this: since the tenor for the Schiller and Grillparzer roles was not available, Verdi turned his attention to Macbeth, but not before making sure that the famous baritone Varesi would be available for the title role. How often did not external circumstances determine the choice of subject in the history of Italian opera? Entire operas were written with specific singers in mind: Bellini's Norma for Giuditta Pasta, Verdi's Rigoletto for Varesi, II Corsaro for the baritone Ronconi; and when it came for Verdi to write Ernani he had been prompted to write the opera because, as he put it, a "prima donna" opera was needed. Despite what we might consider dubi ous, ˇbeginnings, Verdi's Macbeth is clearly a complete work of art. There is some tenderness there and personal warmth, and above all Verdian fire. Certainly it can be said that Macbeth is about as sincere a piece as anything Verdi has written.
As a rule, however, it must be acknowledged that there is an absence of intimacy in Verdi's writing here. All has the weight of battle, of violence, of terrible happenings. Both the orchestration and the vocal writing is designed to have the listener feel terror.. But then this is perfectly consonant with Shakespeare's play (heightened, it might be said, by music and by the economy with which Verdi invests each scene.) Macbeth does not walk gently; he does not really talk to men, and his political aspirations have indeed very little to do with social ideas. Furthermore, it might be noted that he and Lady Macbeth are not really husband and wife, much less lovers; they are crude,and obvious political conspirators, stridently wailing for power, obsessively searching to fill who knows what human void. The listener's responses are commensurate with Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's lack of virtue; their lack of sweetness and light (to borrow Matthew Arnold's words) compel us to recoil from them in confusion and spiritual disarray; we listen with fascination but never do we identify with them. There is very little that is free or quiet in Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's actions, words, or vocal line. This is why we rarely if at all, feel pity for them. Verdi has here presented in startlingly vigorous form a terrifying demented pair of primitives, whose assertions can only be forged in the crucible of the ritualistic contest for political power. It is a contest without rules, for not unlike all too many political agents throughout history, they too are bereft of self-identity, of self-order. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are anarchical to the core.
Shakespeare had always been one of Verdi's favorite poets: "I have had him in my hands" he wrote, "from my earliest youth, and I read and reread him continually." Shakespeare, it is evident, contains themes which had always appealed to Verdi, the model of the humanist composer: the historical themes are there, the drama, the psychological content. Tragic conflict had always been close to Verdi's heart and mind: kings, the powerful, "il popolo" - all the constituent elements of aesthetic and intellectual values are to be found in Shakespeare, and Macbeth is certainly steeped in them: "This tragedy is one of the greatest of human creations! If we do not manage to make something truly grand of it at least," he modestly wrote to his librettist, "let us try to do something out of the ordinary." He wants, Verdi continues to say, brief statements: "I. . . suggest that you write brief verses: the shorter, the greater wiII be their effect. . . not a superfluous word must they contain. . . (and) the style must be elegant. . ." Piave, the librettist (Budden the Verdi scholar tells us) was given no peace: "Everything he did was wrong or needed some kind of adjustment." Verdi himself had submitted to Piave an unusually long synopsis. . . with a letter stating: "I've got the general character and the color of the opera into my head just as if the libretto were already written."
The first presentation of the opera received mixed responses from the Italian critics: it lacked, they argued, an Italian theme; its mise-en-scene was nordic; there were no love affairs, no romantic couples. And, I might add, the character of Lady Macbeth was entirely too masculinized for Italian tastes. Lady Macbeth surpasses her husband in energy; she has what we loosely term "demonic' impuises. Macbeth, in comparison, is a rather pale figure (contrary to Shakespeare): he rarely behaves independently of his wife. Macbeth is either totally at the mercy of the sorcerer's predictions, or of his wife's perverse will. His personal drama is revealed basically in the ensembles: the murder scene, the banquet or the hallucinations are reactive. Only two brief arias at the end of the opera are manifestations of his own will. Whereas Lady Macbeth has more occasion to reveal her specific and perhaps unique individuality in the cavatina, the aria, the drinking song and the sleep-walking scene.
Verdi's insistence that Lady Macbeth's role should be taken by a singer of deformed even ugly tonal quality is far ahead of its time. When the soprano Tadolini had first been assigned the role, Verdi complained: "La Tadolini sings to perfection and I'd like Lady Macbeth to possess a rough, hollow, stifled voice (!)." She should, moreover, have a talent for declamation rather than beauty of tone or elegance of vocal line. Be it as it may, the focus of the listener's attention is directed to three characters in the opera: Macbeth, the Witches (who are as one) and above all, Lady Macbeth.
Apart from the more general themes that have been mentioned above and which consistently appealed to Verdi as musician and arch-dramatist, his exposition of those themes are executed with extraordinary rigor: the leading singers especially must have an uncanny com mand of vocal psychology. Political power always fascinated Verdi, but here he focuses on the dynamics of temptation and how tempting it is to attain power over others. Macbeth's resolution, when it comes, leads him directly, irrevocably to murder; the murder, once committed, must then unleash devastating attacks of remorse. The words are essential, as noted earlier. Never before had Verdi paid such close scrutiny to a text as he did in the Macbeth - not until many years later did he express such sensitive control over the libretto when in his last years he wrote Otello and Falstaff, but by that time he had entrusted the libretto to the very capable poet and composer, Arrigo Boito. The words of Macbeth, he insisted, are essential; the word must, he said, "be sufficient unto itself" in this opera. Much better, he further argued, that the music "serve the poet rather than the composer," (an astonishing statement from an Italian operista.) Macbeth is a revolution in aesthetics for Verdi and for the course of modern opera; it is an almost total about-face from the position laid claim to for generations by the Italian school which had argued that the text or the words must always serve the music. Even the "closed pieces," the arias, should be "more spoken than sung." Lady Macbeth's role, as indicated earlier, "should be almost totally declaimed."
It is probably because of this rule that the opera presents difficulties of production. Although the melodic line is rich and deep in the Verdian mode, and straight as an arrow, it cannot be said that the melodies or the arias themselves are the usual fare we would expect of the composer of Traviata, Trovatore, or Rigoletto. Nevertheless, the writing derives much of its excellence from a variety of sources: it is authoritative, the universal themes of Shakespeare and Verdi's reading of those themes combine often quite thrillingly indeed with Verdi's own strengths along this path.
As Giorgio Strehler, the noted opera producer, has stated: Verdi managed, by dint of an extraordinary dramatic instinct, to go far beyond the nineteenth century conceptions of Shakespearian interpretation: "He was able to sense a new reading of Shakespeare that was absolutely unusual and profound with respect to the historical vision which surrounded it." The dramatic concept that Verdi calls upon for the Macbeth is, as Strehler further noted, a "producer's concept:" It is this concept which lies at the center of Verdi's opera, especially in the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. For it is with regard to these relations that the solitariness of the characters is so profoundly and penetratingly revealed by Verdi. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are truly separated from the rest of society. Verdi quite deliberately, I believe, wishes his listener to be distanced from his and Shakespeare's creation. This is not to say that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are totally distanced from us. We can and do and indeed must share in their humanity, however bereft of the consolation of human virtue we find them to be. Yet we are not like them. We are made of more redeemable stuff than that.
In no other opera does Verdi present with such concentrated brilliance a "history", (one is tempted to say, a case history), as it were, of political man caught in the convulsive struggle for political ascendancy. In no other opera does the composer virtually saturate the stage with purely male struggles for power. Even Lady Macbeth is, to her own destruction, caught up in the agon, the macho struggle for dominion, surpassing Macbeth himself in aggressive, violent, and finally savage contesting. Never again will Verdi's voice take such an obsessive form.
A. E. Vecchio is on the faculty of the Humanities Division of Marymount Manhattan College; he is Coordinator of its Weekend Division.
Back to opera articles by AEV
Back to Italian Opera
Back to AE Vecchio Homepage