Shakespeare at the Opera: Verdi's 'Macbeth'

From the Bavarian State Opera

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THE HIT SINGLE

Act Four features one of Verdi's most vivid sequences as Lady Macbeth, while sleepwalking, graphically describes all the blood that was spilled to help Macbeth gain and keep the throne of Scotland. At the Bavarian State Opera, the role was sung by soprano Nadja Michael.

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The B Side

In the first act, Lady Macbeth (Nadja Michael) sings the aria "Or tutti sorgete" — "Arise all ministers of hell" — as she anticipates Macbeth's murder of King Duncan.

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The world of musical theater has seen plenty of splendid collaborations between writers and composers — famous creative tandems whose names are almost always linked together: Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, Rodgers and Hart, Verdi and Shakespeare ...

Zeljko Lucic and Nadja Michael

Nadja Michael stars as Lady Macbeth, with Zeljko Lucic in the title role of Verdi's Macbeth from the Bavarian State Opera. Wilfried Hoesl/Bayerische Staatsoper hide caption

itoggle caption Wilfried Hoesl/Bayerische Staatsoper

Giuseppe Verdi and William Shakespeare? OK, that last pair isn't exactly like the rest. For one thing, they never actually worked together as partners, having lived in different centuries. The relationship between Verdi and the Bard might, at best, be called a second-hand collaboration, once removed. Still, the results are among the most remarkable combinations of great drama and great music ever created — and they are also among the most unusual.

There are dozens, maybe hundreds of Shakespeare operas, depending on who's counting. But by any count, barely a half dozen of those operas still hold the stage: Gounod's Romeo and Juliet, Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream and maybe Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet or Otto Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor. And the others? Remarkably, they're all by Verdi.

Verdi's last two operas, Otello and Falstaff, are both among the finest ever composed, and they're both based on Shakespeare. But it was much earlier in his career that the composer first showed his unique affinity for the Bard's plays with his boisterous yet strikingly emotional version of Macbeth, written when Verdi was still in his 30s.

World of Opera host Lisa Simeone brings us a Bavarian State Opera production of Macbeth that raised a few eyebrows — and drew more than a few hoots and catcalls — when it opened in Munich. It featured graphic scenes, gruesome tableaus and, at times, not much clothing. Musically, it was well-received, and soprano Nadja Michael earned raves for her vividly dramatic portrayal of Lady Macbeth. One critic wrote that she "looks like a supermodel and sings like a banshee." Also starring were baritone Zeljko Lucic as Macbeth and bass Roberto Scandiuzzi as Banquo.

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The Story of Macbeth

Soprano Nadja Michael

Lady Macbeth (Nadja Michael) with a mountain of skulls, in the Bavarian State Opera's controversial production of Verdi's Macbeth. Wilfried Hoesl/Bayerische Staatsoper hide caption

itoggle caption Wilfried Hoesl/Bayerische Staatsoper
Zeljko Lucic as Macbeth

Macbeth (Zeljko Lucic) walks a desolate landscape of skeletons and corpses, in the Munich production of Verdi's opera. Wlifried Hoesl/Bayerische Staatsoper hide caption

itoggle caption Wlifried Hoesl/Bayerische Staatsoper

WHO'S WHO?

  • Zeljko Lucic .................. Macbeth
  • Nadja Michael ....... Lady Macbeth
  • Roberto Scandiuzzi ........ Banquo
  • Dimitri Pittas ................ Macduff
  • Fabrizio Mercurio ......... Malcolm
  • Lana Kos ......... Lady-in-Waiting
  • Steven Humes ............... Doctor
  • Bavarian State Opera Orchestra and Chorus
  • Nicola Luisotti, conductor
Nadja Michael

Soprano Nadja Michael earned rave reviews as Lady Macbeth at the Bavarian State Opera. Wilfried Hoesl/Bayerische Staatsoper hide caption

itoggle caption Wilfried Hoesl/Bayerische Staatsoper

The opera takes place in Scotland, and ACT ONE begins in a forest. Macbeth and Banquo, two Scottish generals in King Duncan's army, stop to visit with coven of witches. The witches tell Macbeth that he'll eventually become the King of Scotland. They apparently don't want Banquo to feel left out, so they say his heirs will be kings, as well. This news fits nicely with Macbeth's ambitions.

The next scene is in Macbeth's castle, where Lady Macbeth has learned about the witches' prophecies. She also learns that when Macbeth returns home that night, King Duncan will be accompanying him. Obviously, she decides, this is the perfect time for Duncan to be murdered, so Macbeth can become king.

After Macbeth has arrived, and the king has retired for the night, Lady Macbeth persuades her husband that Duncan should die. Macbeth immediately has a vision of a bloody dagger.

Late at night, with his wife as a grim cheerleader, Macbeth takes a real dagger, sneaks into the guestroom, and murders the king in his sleep. Afterward, Macbeth has a guilty conscience — much to his wife's disgust.

The crime is discovered when Banquo and the nobleman Macduff go to attend the king. To protect her husband, Lady Macbeth incriminates the King's own guards. The assassination is announced to the people as the act ends.

As ACT TWO begins, Duncan's son, Malcolm, has fled to England — and given the mood Lady Macbeth is in, that move probably saved his life. Lady Macbeth remembers the witches' prediction that Macbeth would become king. But she also recalls their prediction that Banquo would father future kings. This could make Banquo's heirs a threat to Macbeth. Plainly, Banquo and his son must be added to the Macbeth family's hit list.

In Scene 2, Banquo and his son are attacked by Macbeth's assassins. Banquo is murdered, but his son escapes.

Back at the castle in Scene 3, the Macbeths are hosting a party. Lady Macbeth urges everyone to drink up — and considering the strange things about to take place, she's smart to get her guests as drunk as possible. One of the assassins returns and quietly tells Macbeth what happened in the park.

Macbeth is guilt-stricken, and has a vision of Banquo's ghost, sitting at the banquet table. Naturally, he's a bit distressed. Lady Macbeth acts as though nothing's wrong, and encourages everyone to party on. When the ghost appears to Macbeth again, he's even more terrified — by something nobody else can see — and the crowd begins to grow suspicious.

ACT THREE opens in a gloomy cavern, where the witches are casting spells around a glowing caldron. Macbeth appears looking for more predictions. The witches tell him to watch out for Macduff, who has left the country and suspects Macbeth of evil deeds. But the witches also reassure Macbeth — or at least he thinks they do. They tell him he'll remain in power until a great forest, the Birnam Wood, rises against him. They also predict that he won't fall victim to "any man born of woman."

Then the witches conjure a procession of fearsome apparitions, all of them kings. The parade of ghostly sovereigns ends with the murdered Banquo himself, carrying a mirror. Seeing this, Macbeth faints in terror.

When he comes around the witches have disappeared, and a herald announces Lady Macbeth. She demands to know what the witches had to say. Hearing about the vision of Banquo, Lady Macbeth renews her call for the death of Banquo's son. She wants Macduff dead, too, and his entire family along with him, just for good measure. Macbeth agrees, and his wife congratulates him on his newfound strength.

The first scene of ACT FOUR takes place on the border of Scotland and England, Macduff has joined Duncan's son Malcolm, along with an English army and a band of Scottish refugees. Macduff's family has been massacred, and he's out for revenge. The band advances to Birnam Wood, where they all pick branches from the trees to use as camouflage as they approach Macbeth's castle.

Meanwhile, inside the castle, the scene is set for one of the most vivid passages in any Verdi opera. Lady Macbeth appears, sleepwalking. Her doctor and lady-in-waiting listen aghast as she reflects, in her sleep, on the murders she and her husband have committed.

In the final scene, Macbeth realizes that even though he successfully seized the throne, he has failed as a leader — and he sings the fine aria, "Pieta, rispetto, amore." With Macduff's forces approaching, hiding behind branches, Macbeth is told that the Birnam Wood itself is striding toward the castle. He goes off to meet the invasion.

Macbeth is confronted by Macduff, who reveals that he was not "born of woman" in the usual way but was, in Shakespeare's words, "untimely ripped" from his mother's womb. As Macbeth curses the witches and their misleading prophecies, a battle begins. Macbeth is killed by Macduff, and Malcolm is declared King.

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