Habitually pessimistic, prone to melancholy, Verdi was always at pains to emphasise his lowly origins. Late in life the composer who became a national icon and a patriarch of the newly united Italy told his French biographer Camille Bellaigue, ‘I had a hard time as a boy.’ He dubbed himself ‘the least erudite among past and present composers’. Yet as with Haydn 75 years earlier, it suited Verdi to present a narrative of a poor, largely self-taught composer who triumphed over daunting odds.
Born in the hamlet of Le Roncole, near the market town of Busseto in the province of Parma, Verdi came from a family of traders, not illiterate peasants, as he would later imply. His father, a respected grocer and innkeeper, though never well-off, was keen to foster his son’s education, and procured him an old spinet when he was seven. While no prodigy, the young Giuseppe became organist at the local church, and received a thorough education in the Busseto ginnasio. In his teens he composed for the local Philharmonic Society an eclectic array of keyboard variations, marches, overtures, cantatas and concertos. None has survived, though we can guess that in them he developed the crudely effective banda sonorities that pepper his early operas.
Verdi was supported by the wealthy Busseto merchant Antonio Barezzi, whose daughter Margherita would become Verdi’s first wife. Barezzi agreed to advance money for his studies at the Milan Conservatory, though Verdi was refused entry, partly because of his ‘lack of piano technique and technical knowledge’ – a rejection that would rankle for life. Instead, Barezzi paid for Verdi to study privately in Milan for three years. In 1836 he landed his first post (as maestro di musica in Busseto), married and composed an opera, Rocester. The director of the Ducal Theatre in Parma would not, however, risk a work by an unknown 22-year-old. Verdi radically revised it as Oberto, whose success at La Scala in 1839 (which Verdi, true to form, later played down) led to a contract for three more operas.
'Macbeth was unprecedented in Verdi’s art both for its psychological penetration and the refinement of its orchestral colouring'
By now Verdi had moved to Milan. Yet the double blow of Margherita’s death (from encephalitis) and the failure of his second opera, Un giorno di regno (his sole comedy before Falstaff), left Verdi distraught. We can take with a pinch of salt his resolve ‘to write no more’. But his spirits and creative energy only revived during the composition of his third opera, Nabucco, triumphantly premiered at La Scala in 1842, with his future second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, as Abigaille. Verdi later recalled that at rehearsals workmen would down tools to listen in silence to the slaves’ chorus ‘Va pensiero’. By the end of his life it had become an alternative Italian national anthem.
Nabucco sealed Verdi’s reputation throughout the Italian peninsula. With its dramatic energy, larger-than-life characters (Abigaille foreshadows both Lady Macbeth and Amneris in Aida) and powerful choruses, it transcended the noble but chilly operas of Saverio Mercadante, who rivalled Donizetti as the leading Italian operatic composer after Bellini’s death and Rossini’s retirement. Two years later he at least matched Donizetti at his own game in the swashbuckling heroism of Ernani, based on the melodrama by Victor Hugo. The Frenchman disliked the opera, and superior critics and fellow composers remained sceptical; but Ernani made Verdi internationally famous.
During the ‘galley years’ – a typical Verdian put-down – that followed, when Verdi produced an average of one opera every nine months, Macbeth is rightly seen as a watershed. After making his own prose draft, he chivvied his librettist Francesco Piave into producing exactly the text he wanted. A letter reads: ‘This tragedy is one of the greatest creations of the human spirit. If we can’t do something great with it, let us at least try to do something out of the ordinary.’ A triumph at its 1847 Florence premiere, then revised for Paris in 1865, ‘L’opera senza amore’, as the Italians dubbed it, has been derided for its stylistic inconsistencies, and for the alleged triteness of the witches’ choruses. Yet most opera lovers would agree that Macbeth is a masterpiece both great and ‘out of the ordinary’, unprecedented in Verdi’s art both for its psychological penetration and the refinement of its orchestral colouring: say, in the eerie, wailing cor anglais in the sleepwalking scene, or the evocative use of low clarinets. More than other composers in the 19th-century Italian opera industry, Verdi involved himself closely in a work’s staging. With Macbeth he went further than ever, minutely supervising every aspect of production. He gave the scene designer, who evidently hadn’t a clue about Shakespeare’s play (still unperformed in Italy in 1847!), a crisp lesson in Scottish history. He wrote to the Florence impresario Alessandro Lanari specifying the exact number of witches – three groups of six – and stressing the need for a good tenor for the part of Macduff, and the importance of the ensembles.
As ever, Verdi had no time for singers with attitude. ‘I am annoyed that the singer who will play Banquo doesn’t want to come on as his ghost. Why is this? Singers must be engaged to sing and to act. It is high time we stopped being lenient here. It would be monstrous for someone else to play the ghost. It must be immediately recognisable as Banquo.’ Verdi even wrote to London to discover how the appearance of Banquo’s ghost was customarily staged. He seems to have existed in a constant state of nervous irritability. Increasingly exasperated with Piave for resisting his requests for changes, he sacked him and engaged the poet Andrea Maffei to make final adjustments to the witches’ chorus in Act 3 and Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene.
For the title-role Verdi insisted upon the baritone Felice Varesi, who had so impressed him as Don Carlo in Ernani. Stressing that the opera was written ‘in an entirely new manner’, he enjoined Varesi to ‘serve the poet before the composer’, and worked with him and the Lady Macbeth, Marianna Barbieri-Nini, on every nuance of their roles. According to an unreliable memoir, Barbieri-Nini complained that Verdi rehearsed the breathtakingly original Gran scena e duetto, beginning with Macbeth’s dagger soliloquy, more than 150 times, and then called a final rehearsal moments before the public dress rehearsal. But while Verdi made unprecedented demands on his singers, many reports, from all periods of his life, confirm his kindness and consideration to them.
After the premiere at the Teatro della Pergola on March 14, 1847, Verdi informed Maffei’s estranged wife, Clarina, in Milan that ‘the opera was not a fiasco’: dour Verdian understatement if ever there was. In fact, Barbieri-Nini received an ovation after the sleepwalking scene, and the composer was called back for no fewer than 38 curtain calls. After its initial triumph, Macbeth quickly made its way around the Italian peninsula. Performances in Madrid and Vienna soon followed, and by 1858 it had even reached New York. Verdi dedicated the opera to Antonio Barezzi, the father of his late wife, who as ‘benefactor, father and friend’ had helped make possible his career as a composer: ‘Here, then, is Macbeth, which I love above all my other works, and for that reason deem it worthy to be presented to you.’
Unheralded in the previous operas, Macbeth is visionary. With it, Verdi jumped musically 50 years ahead. You cannot treat it as you would Ernani or Nabucco, it’s a completely different world. The tinta, the colour of the opera, is very shadowy and there are few very famous arias. The difficulty with Macbeth is that you must consider it not as a series of arias, but as an organic body. I feel the Verdi of Aida and Otello – there is an unbroken dramatic line running from the first to the last note of the opera.
Macbeth is ‘early Verdi’ in that it was written before 1850, but if we consider not the time in which it was written but the specifics of the opera, it is not ‘early Verdi’ at all, it’s very mature Verdi. And if you look at the revisions he made in 1865, he didn’t alter very much. Of course he refined some elements, but basically what he wrote in 1847 was already a fantastic opera. Michelangelo said that when he looked at a block of stone he could already see the statue inside, that he only had to take away the stone that was not needed. With Macbeth I have the same feeling. From the very first second of the opera you have the feeling that this is a fantastic marble stone and that Verdi is going to make a statue out of it.
Except for the final two big operas, Otello and Falstaff, the librettos that Verdi used were not on the same artistic level as the musical inspiration. But what Verdi wanted from a libretto was not the beauty of the poetry but the fire of the drama. And in this, Piave did a fantastic job. If we look at Macbeth’s libretto from the literary point of view there are some, let’s say, less successful moments, but Piave never lost the high dramatic temperature that Verdi required. To begin the opera, Verdi needed a kind of prelude to establish its tone, and what was better for this than the witches’ chorus? The chorus brings a ghostly colour to the opera which then spills over into the entire work. Macbeth is the first opera in which Verdi thinks primarily about colour instead of sequences of arias and cabalettas.
I conducted my first Macbeth at the Met last spring. I have to confess that I was always scared by the piece; not by the technical skills required of the conductor, but by the opera’s atmosphere, because if you don’t establish the atmosphere in the first minute, Macbeth isn’t going to work. In the cast were Thomas Hampson and Nadja Michael – she’s a soprano with very easy low notes. Verdi said that for the role of Lady Macbeth you don’t need to have a beautiful voice but you do need a very wide range and a very expressive voice, he was not looking for beauty.
What’s incredibly important when conducting Macbeth is to find the right atmosphere. For instance, in ‘Una macchia è qui tuttora!’, Lady Macbeth’s big aria, you have to find a very mysterious and frightening timbre in the orchestra, playing only sotto voce but without losing any fire, like an underground earthquake moving very slowly. The success of this particular aria is very dependent on the individual artistry of the singer. She has to find the two faces of Lady Macbeth, the two sides of the same coin: the queen and the lady pushing Macbeth to murder. So the soprano should never forget that she should be a very seductive, beautiful and enchanting lady, but also one who’s intent on doing evil rather than good. It is difficult to present the whole of the character.
I don’t hear the influence of any other composers in the music for Macbeth. I think it’s like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – there was nothing that anticipated it, and nothing followed it for a while. Macbeth is like the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey – nothing gives the impression that it’s going to appear and then suddenly it materialises. After Nabucco, Ernani makes sense, but Macbeth is miles ahead. Everybody thinks Verdi matured with Rigoletto; I think Verdi became a genius with Macbeth. Nabucco has great tunes, but it could have been written by an inspired Donizetti. Macbeth, on the other hand, is absolutely unique.
The biggest achievement of Macbeth is the continuous flow of it – it doesn’t break down into arias, cabalettas and so on. Verdi was seeking truth and reality, and sometimes reality is not beautiful, but painful. Macbeth is the closest that Verdi got to ‘real life’ at that time.
With his passionate concern for dramatic truth, Verdi famously declared that he wanted the singer playing Lady Macbeth to have a ‘harsh, stifled [cupo], dark’ timbre, ‘the voice of a devil’. Not flinching from moments of downright ugliness, Maria Callas embodied the character with an unequalled shocking intensity. Her 1952 La Scala performance (the earliest complete Macbeth on disc) is superbly conducted by Victor De Sabata, but is let down by Enzo Mascherini’s depressingly stolid Macbeth (Verdi’s reaction would surely have been unprintable) and a so-so supporting cast (Warner Classics 566447-2).
Like most conductors, De Sabata uses a score based on the revised French version Verdi made for Paris in 1865. While the opera inevitably loses some stylistic consistency – this was the period of La forza del destino and Don Carlos – it’s hard to forgo two magnificent numbers written for the Paris production: Lady Macbeth’s Act 2 aria ‘La luce langue’, with its coiling chromaticism, and the haunting chorus of exiles at the opening of Act 4 – subtler by far than the chorus it replaced. In modern sound, the choice for the 1865 version lies between the fiery 1976 Riccardo Muti version, with Fiorenza Cossotto and Sherrill Milnes as the murderous pair (Warner Classics 319270-2), and a recording made the same year with La Scala forces under Claudio Abbado (DG 449 7322).
To over-simplify, Muti, unafraid of early Verdian brashness, is fiery in his conducting, more viscerally exciting; while Abbado, minutely attentive to Verdi’s markings, gives the score a rather more reflective tinta. My own preference (just) is for Abbado. In his hands the witches’ choruses sound insinuating and/or sinister rather than jaunty. His cast includes the young Domingo, in glorious voice as Macduff, and the sable-toned Nicolai Ghiaurov giving a model demonstration of Verdian basso cantante singing in Banquo’s aria of foreboding. The lead roles are magnificently taken by two great Verdians. Piero Cappuccilli’s broodingly introspective Macbeth is a complex, truly Shakespearean portrayal, while Shirley Verrett, with her darkly flaring tone, aptly ‘harsh’ in extremis, suggests the neurosis, even the pathos, underlying Lady Macbeth’s overweening pride.
As a pendant, it’s worth hearing the Opera Rara recording of Verdi’s 1847 original, idiomatically conducted by John Matheson (ORCV301). Although differences between the two versions of the score are often nugatory (most of the 1865 substitutions are in Act 4), the overall effect is rawer, more elemental. True to the aesthetic of the 1840s, there’s more bravura writing for both principals, especially Lady Macbeth. Rita Hunter’s ample dramatic soprano is surprisingly agile in Verdi’s flashy cabalettas, and Peter Glossop, less vibrantly italianate than Cappuccilli, sings the title-role with subtlety and fine Verdian style.
Cappuccilli; Verrett; Ghiaurov; Domingo; Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan / Claudio Abbado
Mike Ashman looks into the opera's genesis, Renée Fleming reflects on the role of Violetta, plus a guide to the key recordings... Read more
Richard Wigmore explores Verdi's creative process, Sir Mark Elder reflects on Verdi's masterpiece, plus we give a guide to the greatest recordings... Read more
Jeremy Nicholas reveals Verdi's creative process, Bryn Terfel discusses the challenges of Falstaff, plus a guide to key recordings... Read more