Shakespeare and Opera: The Sound and Fury of Macbeth

Email a Friend

The great actor Ian McKellen used to do a one-man show called Acting Shakespeare in which he would explain some of the secrets of the craft and get audiences to think about the Bard’s work in new ways. A DVD of one performance came out recently, nearly 30 years after its initial PBS release.

One of the first questions he would ask the audience was whether anyone could name a happily married couple in Shakespeare’s canon. While Romeo and Juliet are deeply in love in their ever-so-brief marriage, no one raised them. Otherwise, there seem to be marriages in conflict wherever you look. The audience seemed stumped and then I raised my hand. “The Macbeths,” I said. McKellen smiled and seemed ready to correct me, but did not quite have a response. Then he laughed and said, “You may be right. I will have to rethink that question.”

Lord and Lady Macbeth could be described as happily married in that they seem compatible, are passionate about one another, and certainly have a lot of shared interests and goals. Only when things start falling apart do they fall into their own separate hells, as she dies first and then he is killed. Here is McKellen in the famous speech by Macbeth upon learning that his wife has died.

Macbeth is often referred to as “The Scottish Play” by actors who superstitiously believe that saying the title will bring misfortune. I believe it is one of Shakespeare’s best plays, with vivid language and situations. One must accept the roles of the witches and a degree of the supernatural. This play is not realism, but nor is most opera. Giuseppe Verdi understood its operatic potential and made it his first work based on Shakespeare.

Verdi and the Supernatural

In 1846, Verdi received a commission to create an opera for Florence’s historic Teatro della Pergola. He was interested in writing an opera that would be fantastico, which suggests the presence of fantasy, magic and the supernatural. He chose among three subjects, but only one was Shakespearean. When told that the leading singer available would be Felice Varesi, a baritone, Verdi decided that this voice would be more suited to play Macbeth than the other possibilities, which were drawn from dramas by Schiller and Grillparzer. This simple fact is how the opera Macbeth came to be. Had there been the tenor Gaetano Fraschini, as Verdi had expected, another opera fantastica might be been composed instead of Macbeth. Verdi then contacted Francesco Maria Piave, sent him an outline of how he felt the opera should be constructed, and gave him the task of writing a libretto.

It was the fantastico element, especially the witches, that gave Piave the most trouble. Verdi became frustrated and engaged another writer, Andrea Maffei, to strengthen those parts of the libretto. Both Piave and Maffei were angry with Verdi and neither of their names appeared on the first libretto. Verdi took hold of it and the opera’s premiere in 1847 was a success. The composer thought it was the best work he had yet written.

As he continued to grow and master his craft, Verdi came to think this opera needed to be improved. In 1864 a French production was planned and Verdi used the occasion to revisit it. He rewrote a duet in Act One, added a solo for Lady Macbeth in Act Two, changed an aria for the title character in Act Three as well as adding a ballet to suit the taste of French audiences, and amended some of the beginning of Act Four. Many opera companies mix and match a bit in presenting their versions of Macbeth, often eliminating the ballet, which seems wrong in the context of the story.

Let us try to understand how Verdi turned Shakespeare’s play into opera, learning what is gained and what is perhaps lost in the transition. Watch Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth in the sleepwalking scene. She has gone mad after several murders. Dench’s voice becomes a communicative medium for her anguish, combining both words and sound in compelling ways.

Verdi’s interpretation of this scene is interesting because it shows how spoken theater and opera can present the same material in different ways. In the play, we focus on the words and let our understanding of them, as well as the actress’s recitation, inform our notion of what the character is experiencing. In the opera, the words served as an inspiration to the composer, whose music conveys the emotional content of the scene. Note that in this, and all opera scenes, the music for the singer as well as the music for orchestra allows the listener to connect to the emotions and the drama. While I think the best sleepwalking scene on video is by Shirley Verrett, I am saving it for another post. Here it is as performed by Maria Guleghina, with Riccardo Muti conducting. As you watch it, remember Shakespeare’s words and pay attention to what Verdi does with them musically.

Other Operatic Treatments

Verdi was not the first to try to write an opera based on this play. Beethoven began work on a Macbeth but abandoned the project when his librettist died. The play makes great source material for an opera, although Verdi’s achievement was so great that subsequent interpretations had to draw from the play but move it in other directions. Ortrud and Telramund in Wagner’s Lohengrin are unmistakably like the Macbeths in style and naked self-interest. You don’t have to know this opera to grasp this scene and its Macbethian connections, especially as played by Tom Fox and Waltraud Meier.

Botswana’s first opera was based on the story of the Macbeths, although they were baboons in this version and had behavior that is as bad as--and serves as a caution to--humans. 

Then there is Shostakovich’s thrilling Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (also known as Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District or Katerina Ismailova). Completed in 1934, it was based on the 1865 novel by Nikolai Leskov about a woman in Siberia who is an adulteress and murders her lecherous father-in-law. In the opera, this killing is done by serving the old man mushrooms mixed with rat poison and it is one of the great murders in all of opera. The title character is perhaps as evil as Lady Macbeth but her ineffectual husband is just one of several male figures in Katerina’s orbit. The opera was condemned and banned by Stalin for many reasons, including its overt sexuality but it is gradually finding its place in the repertory of opera houses thanks to courageous sopranos who have played the title role, including Catherine Malfitano, Nadine Secunde and Eva-Maria Westbroek seen here with Christopher Ventris.

There are still more operatic treatments of Macbeth, including those of Hippolyte Chelard (1827); Wilhelm Taubert (1857); Ernest Bloch (1906); and Antonio Gino Bibalo (1989). Louis Spohr wrote an overture and incidental music to the play in 1877. Richard Strauss wrote a tone poem based on the play in 1888. Bedrich Smetana outlined an opera, but it became a piano work called Macbeth and the Witches. The Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino’s was seen at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2003.

What is it about Shakespeare’s Macbeth that makes it so appealing to composers?