You may well have encountered Verdi’s Macbeth, one of three opera in this year’s Buxton Festival, as it has been staged with increasing frequency since around the mid-1950s, but not in its original version premiered in Florence in 1847.
What you see and hear is the 1865 French version for Paris, translated into Italian!
The irony is that whereas Verdi’s first thoughts on his operatic re-working of Shakespeare’s play met with conspicuous success all over Italy, plus places like Vienna and Madrid, his French adaptation failed to stir even the pigeons on the Boulevard des Capucines!
It fared little better back in Italy as Verdi’s definitive version soon after and began drifting into obscurity.
What might be called ‘pure’ productions of the 1865 version since the opera began re-emerging in the mid-20th century have tended to be the exception rather than the rule.
Rarely, if ever seen is the act three ballet, while many productions are prone to borrowing from the 1847 original.
The most regularly lifted item is Macbeth’s short-ish aria at the end of the opera when, fatally wounded, he curses the prophecies of hell before expiring on stage – in the revision he is killed off-stage by Macduff with no curses heard.
Verdi engaged in a fairly hefty revision of the opera for Paris, nowhere more so than in the fourth and final act, which he revised from beginning to end, re-writing the whole of the big choral scene with which it opens
Although not as drastic, there are three other instances where the changes can be described as major, including the obligatory ballet scene for any opera staged in France at the time.
You do not hear Lady Macbeth’s celebrated La luce langue at the beginning of act two but the aria it replaced in 1865, a much more florid affair with some wicked coloratura.
Similarly, instead of the Macbeth/ Lady Macbeth duet that closed act three in Paris, Macbeth is heard in an aria after recovering from his second encounter with the witches resolving to pursue a further murderous path.
Revised version or original, the opera tends to be looked down on as inferior set against Verdi’s last two Shakespearean masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff. Greater works, yes, but that does not render Macbeth as second-rate by comparison.
It needs remembering that exactly 40 years elapsed between Macbeth in 1847 and Otello with, including revisions, 26 other operas separating them over which the composer was able to develop and refine his craft – you could almost say out of recognition!
It has been criticised for its fidelity to Shakespeare. In fact, it is as faithful as Boito’s librettos for Otello and Falstaff, it’s just that they are more polished. There are, though, the same imaginative cuts and compression of happenings in the play.
Verdi thought the world of Shakespeare and went to great pains to preserve the essence of ‘the Bard’ in his operas.
He didn’t just randomly turn the Three Witches into a chorus in Macbeth, he gave them three-part music to sing and divided them into three groups, each group singing as one and uttering ‘I’ not ‘we’.
“This tragedy is one of the greatest creations of man… If we can’t make something great out of it let us at least try to do something out of the ordinary,” Verdi wrote to his librettist Piave.
“It was enough to drive one crazy!” grumbled the first Lady Macbeth, the eminent soprano Marianna Barbieri-Nini in response to the amount time the composer spent coaching her on how to tackle the sleepwalking scene.
It was out the ordinary in its day (1847) with Verdi breaking new ground to portray dramatic reality and, approached on its own merits, original or revised version, Macbeth is a much better opera than it is often credited as being.
Buxton Festival’s staging of the original version in a production by Elijah Moshinsky, no less, and is conducted by festival artistic director Stephen Barlow with two of his favourite singers as the Macbeths, Stephen Gadd and Kate Ladner.
It receives five performances over the festival’s duration and is sung in Italian with English side-titles.
See Two Tyrants and a May Queen called Albert @ www.bernardleemusic.com for thoughts on the other two Buxton operas.