The 1847 Macbeth – Director Elijah Moshinsky on the ‘propulsive vitality and rough originality’ of Verdi’s first Macbeth

The early operas of Verdi are a unique genre. Often derided for their naivety or crude directness, they are neglected in relation to his more expansive and complex works which have found a permanent place in the repertoire of every opera house.

I aim to explore these neglected works. Macbeth is a particularly interesting example of an early opera composed in1847 which was then revised by Verdi in 1865. The first performances were written for the Teatro Pergola in Florence, a small theatre – about the same size as Buxton Opera House – and the later Macbeth was commissioned for the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris which was a large House boasting a chorus of over a hundred and a large orchestra. Much of the opera was rewritten to accommodate this larger scale and an extended ballet sequence was added. There is no doubt that the later version has many improved developments in style, sweep and colour. The new numbers show the progression of Verdi’s ability to express more sophisticated emotional range but the first one shows us Verdi’s direct attempt to write a Shakespearean opera. It is the earlier version that has propulsive vitality and rough originality. This is Verdi’s anti-bel canto opera, the one that he wants to be sung at times almost as speech: ‘The plot is taken from one of the greatest tragedies the theatre boasts, and I have tried to have it well verified, and to give it a new texture, and to compose music tied as far as possible to the text and to the situations’.

Verdi had a close friend in Guilin Carcano who was translating Shakespeare into Italian, and in 1846 he read to Verdi the play of Macbeth. This clearly gripped the composer’s mind and he immediately recommended it as a subject for his commission in Florence and in 1847 Verdi actually saw a performance of Macready’s production in London.

But what we see in the opera is Shakespeare as performed through the traditions of nineteenth century theatre. One particular part of that tradition survives in this early version in the final death aria of Macbeth which is derived from David Garrick’s idea to write himself a stirring climactic death speech, because he believed Shakespeare did not provide Macbeth with a good ending. The librettist, Francesco Mario Piave, simply followed current performance practice. By the time Verdi rewrote it for Paris the taste had changed and Verdi was asked for a heroic chorus of one hundred bards to hail Malcolm’s victory.

So what is remarkable about this first version?

  • It captures in operatic form much of the essence of Shakespeare’s drama.
  • It has the dramatic compression of Verdi’s early works.Constant contrasts used to create drama.
  • A use of music and text which seems to us unsophisticated but cumulatively building to a complex piece of theatre.
  • Directness in presenting the drama.

Verdi laid great emphasis on simplicity: the characters should stand out clearly; the changes in their fortunes or situations should be readily grasped. With this subject he attempted to dramatise the horror and darkness of regicide. But this play had a supernatural element in the witches which connected the action. Verdi wrote to Piave: ‘The subject is neither political or religious; it is fantastical’.

The opera is not about the rise of a modern fascist nor is it about political tyranny. It is a study in character, about ambition for power, a toxic marriage which leads to the inner destruction of the protagonists and the descent of the world into chaos.