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Macbeth by Rafal Olbinski (1999)
20 Nov 2005

Verdi's Macbeth — The Critical Edition

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a weighty play, and Verdi’s Macbeth seems to be a weighty opera: the three volumes of this edition (two of the full score, plus a smaller Critical Commentary containing the critical notes and a description of the sources) weigh 16.6 pounds. It is remarkable to think that this is the first full score of either the 1847 original or the 1865 revised Macbeth ever published.

Giuseppe Verdi, Macbeth: Melodramma in Four Acts. Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave.

Edited by David Lawton. 612 p., Three-volume set. Score (two volumes cloth): 1040 p., 10-1/2 x 14-1/2; Commentary (one volume cloth): 304p., 6-3/4 x 9-1/2. 10-1/2 x 14-1/2 2005 Series: (WGV-O) The Works of Giuseppe Verdi, Series I: Operas. The University of Chicago Press (Chicago and London) and Ricordi (Milan), 2005.

ISBN 0-226-85320-9


Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play about hallucinations, and there is a certain ghostly quality about this edition of the opera as well: the text, though stated with triumphant clarity, is surrounded by a penumbra of variants: first thoughts, second thoughts, restored erasures and cross-outs, smudges unsmudged where possible, alternative versions proposed by censors, stage directors, conductors, scholars, and fools. Indeed to read the critical notes is to follow with amazing detail Verdi’s creative process, as he charges along—carelessly notating his ideas, writing on the wrong stave—then reconsiders. But the reconsiderations themselves tend to be imperfectly written, so the text of the opera, especially in certain details of phrasing and slurring and accentuation, remains to some extent liquid. Even a score edited with Prof. Lawton’s scrupulous intelligence remains a score rather than the score: if Lady Macbeth wished to sing a strange chromatic run during her first-act duet (at lo direbbe l’invitto che fu, chi mai? , in the 1847 version), an ossia printed in the notes (Critical Commentary, p. 253) invites her to do so. Prof. Lawton notes (Full score, p. xli) that in I masnadieri, Verdi didn’t even bother to write out one of the cadenzas, but merely noted the extremes of range, so that Jenny Lind could provide anything she wanted. Opera scores are always hypertexts and hypotexts, incomplete and overcomplete, demanding the performer’s whim, and subject to the performer’s whim even against the composer’s wishes; but here we have, it seems, every possibility that Verdi considered, from the solidly determinate to the conjectural and rejected. Various Macbeths peer out from beneath the score’s main image, like the sortileges of kings that recede from Banquo, who holds a mirror, because we always stare at our own image whenever we stare at a score.

The major alternative to the 1865 Paris Macbeth that we all know, and many of us love, is of course the 1847 original. Prof. Lawton is aware that this edition, with the variant 1847 versions presented in the appendix, may help to spur performances of the 1847 text, which differs in many ways: no La luce langue, no duet for the Macbeths at the end of the third act, no final hymn of victory, a completely different Patria oppressa chorus for the Scottish refugees at the beginning of the last act, as well as some important changes in the first-act duet and the apparition scene. A great deal of information on the 1847 has been readily available, from the Dynamic and Opera Rara recordings and from Verdi’s “Macbeth,” ed. David Rosen and Andrew Porter, the indispensable companion, which prints long excerpts from the 1847 vocal score, along with source studies and reception history. Prof. Lawton is generous in praising this book as the source for his own source study, but he corrects some of its errors: for example, recent transcripts of Verdi’s letters reveal that Verdi’s famous insult to the librettist Piave (“I wouldn’t take your drama for all the gold in the world”) was actually an expression of sympathy: “I wouldn’t wish you injury for all the gold in the world”—Verdi wrote danno, not dramma (Full score, p. xiii). Now, with this critical edition, we can take Piave’s 1847 drama whenever we wish, if we have $400 or so of the world’s gold.

In Verdi’s day the 1847 version was a hit, the 1865 much less so; for much of the last century the opera has often been performed in a slightly mixed version, mostly 1865, but with Macbeth’s 1847 death solo Mal per me spliced into the last act. But there is a case to be made for acquainting audiences with both of the pure versions, and I hope that the fortunes of the earlier text prosper under this new stimulus. The 1865 version is more spacious, sprawling, operatic: the Parisian ballet-pantomime for Hecate offers a glimpse at fate’s control mechanisms; the new chorus for the Scottish refugees has a greater emotional amplitude; and Lady Macbeth’s La luce langue is one of Verdi’s great arias, a show-stopper. If mixed-mode dramaturgy, opportunities for histrionic display, are Shakespearean, then 1865 is more Shakespearean than its predecessor. But—you may feel that the show ought not to be stopped, for applauding the soprano or for any other reason. If you feel that Macbeth is a claustrophobic, punishingly thrusting, maniacal thing, a drama in which the walls keep closing around, a study of folie à deux, a play of pit and pendulum, then 1847 is the more Shakespearean: the noose always feels tighter. This difference is exactly comparable to that between Gluck’s original Orfeo ed Euridice of 1762 and its looser, longer, more recognizably operatic revision, Orphée et Eurydice; and I think that Macbeth, like Orfeo, is one of the great reform operas.

The greater economy of the 1847 version can be seen in many ways, in matters both large and small. For an example of a large matter, there is the substitution of La luce langue (Light thickens) for Trionfai! (I have triumphed) near the beginning of the second act—Trionfai! is full of wide leaps, cackles and gloats, as if Lady Macbeth were herself playing the role of a witch. She notes that the murder of Duncan is meaningless unless the throne is secured by more crimes: the most salient line is la regal corona è nulla, se può in capo vacillar! (the royal crown is nothing if it totters on the head). Verdi went to some effort to illustrate this line as exactly as possible: the last syllable of vacillar vacillates wildly into staccato coloratura; and the word nulla is given astonishing stress, losing its balance over a minor second, or plunging down a fifth or seventh, or sustained for two and half loud bars. Here the nullity at the heart of Lady’s triumph is graphic. In the 1865 revised version, Verdi replaced Trionfai! with a far more memorable aria, La luce langue, but there is a case to made for retaining Trionfai!: its very vulgarity aligns Lady with the “trivial” witches–Verdi called the witches triviali, ma stravaganti ed originali (vulgar, but bizarre but original). Trionfai! suggests the coarseness of sin and the untenability of vicious success; and the drugged, effortful, queasy quality of La luce langue may suggest an elderly duchess with a hangover more than a medieval queen lusting for more blood. The singer of La luce langue is already baffled, almost sleepwalking through her own victory; the hollowness is too explicit here.

For an example of a small but telling matter, I turn to a short passage in the great first-act duet. In both versions, Lady Macbeth mocks her husband by quoting his own tune back at him: Macbeth tells her of the voice that accuses him of murdering sleep, avrai per guanciali sol vepri, o Macbetto (you will have only thorns for a pillow, O Macbeth), and Lady Macbeth suggests that the phantom voice was really saying Sei vano, o Macbetto, ma privo d’ardire (you are vain, O Macbeth, but not bold enough); Lady recasts Macbeth’s B-flat minor phrase in a garishly cheerful B-flat major–a parody that displays the effect of psychic intimacy that Lady is trying to achieve, as if she were a second point of view inside Macbeth’s skull, offering alternative interpretations for the same event. But in 1865 Verdi altered Lady Macbeth’s vocal line to make the quotation freer, more flamboyant, less recognizable; in 1847 Lady Macbeth repeated her husband’s tune with very little alteration, as if she were little more than a transposing parrot. In the earlier version the Macbeths have little distance from one another; the stultifying psychic closeness of the murderers is more apparent. It is clearer that they are playing a mirroring game with one another, just as Otello and Iago play in Otello:

Iago. Dassenno? (Indeed?)
Otello. Sì, dassenno. Nel credi onesto? (Do you think her honest?)
Iago. Onesto?
Otello. Che ascondi nel tuo core? (What are you hiding in your heart?)
Iago. Che ascondo in cor, signore? (What am I hiding in my heart, lord?)
Otello. “Che ascondo in cor, signore?”

From onesto on, these phrases all begin with the same three notes—it is not easy to tell which is the singing coach and which the slow-witted pupil, but the audience knows that Iago, usurping Otello’s voice, is calling the tune. Temptation scenes play in Verdi’s head as a form of echolalia.

For another example of the special pleasures of 1847, I turn to the famous little phrase Tutto è finito! After Macbeth kills Duncan, he returns to his wife, “as if choking,” he announces Tutto è finito! (All done!) to a simple minor-second figure (often scale degrees ^5-flat^6-^5, but sometimes transposed to the tonic or the mediant), at the threshold of recognition as an epigram. As many critics (starting with Abramo Basevi in 1859) have noticed, Verdi will construct a number of important figures along identical lines: we can hear Tutto è finito in Macbeth’s description of the voice that says Macbeth doth murder sleep (Allor questa voce); in the opening of the great choral lament in the finale to the first act (Schiudi, inferno): and the first three bars of the prelude to the second act, obviously recalling Tutto è finito, note for note; and even the words Una macchia (a stain) in the sleepwalking scene, a subtle recollection. In the 1865 version, the accompaniment to the chorus of Scottish refugees, Patria oppressa, is full of intricate traceries of such figures. Gary Tomlinson offers an exceptionally full catalogue of these Tutto è finitos of the 1865 text in his Metaphysical Song: An Essay on Opera, pp. 96-99.

But the1847 version is still more obsessed with the Tutto è finito epigram: for example, in the first setting of Patria oppressa the vocal line was itself based on a rhythmically charged figure (scale degrees ^3-^4-^4-^3), dripping the same sort of blood as the previous examples. The apotheosis of the Tutto è finito epigram occurs in the final scene of the 1847 version, Macbeth’s death solo Mal per me, in which the orchestra turns the scale-degree ^5-flat^ 6-^5 figure into a hangman’s continuous drum-roll—the development of the epigram-figure, at once subtle and abrupt, anticipates certain procedures of Otello, written long afterward. This little figure is the music-icon of the stain that can’t be washed out–and since in a tragedy falling minor seconds, the basic figure of desolation since the days of Monteverdi’s stile molle, are likely to be everywhere, Verdi teaches us to read them as an omnipresence of blood. Verdi spatters his score with incriminating spots.

Lurking in the small print of the critical edition there can be found Macbeths beyond either official version. Prof. Lawton is fascinated by the alterations imposed by censors, and one of the delights of reading his notes is his quotation of mutant libretti. We don’t hear much about the Non-regicidal Macbeth of Palermo, in which Macbeth murders a “very rich Scottish nobleman,” Count Walfred (Verdi’s “Macbeth,” p. 356), but we are offered several delectable samples of the Namby-pamby Macbeth created to conform to the censorship of Rome: the Roman authorities, concerned about the impiety of witchcraft, changed the witches into a band of gypsies who tell fortunes with cards (Trar per Banco l’Asse io vo– For Banquo I’m going to draw an ace—Critical Commentary, p. 55). Later (p. 158) Prof. Lawton quotes the passage where the gypsies brew in their cauldron “an all-purpose potion … for an amorous young virgin, a gambler, and a young warrior.” Perhaps we are fortunate that the gypsies in the Rome Macbeth were not shown picking Macbeth’s pocket or stealing a chicken. The witches have always jostled for space in production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and have often endured a certain repression; and the beardless, castrated witches of Rome represent a limit in shackling their power.

But perhaps the most intriguing of all revisionist versions is the Operatized Macbeth that Léon Escudier, the impresario of 1865, hoped to coax Verdi into writing. It was clear from the beginning that Macbeth was singularly unsuited to become an opera because it lacked a plausible role for a romantic tenor; throughout his life Verdi insisted that the lead tenor, Macduff, was not to be considered an important role. But Escudier was determined to find some way of justifying the attentions of an expensive tenor. He exercised his considerable resources of politesse in trying to persuade Verdi to augment Macduff’s role by letting him (instead of Lady) sing a stanza of the brindisi; while Verdi was equally determined to relegate the sane Macduff to the edges of the opera (Verdi’s “Macbeth,” pp. 97, 101, 114-16). Eventually Escudier actually ordered, without Verdi’s knowledge, a change in the fourth-act cabaletta sung by Macduff, Malcolm, and the chorus, turning it into a solo for Macduff; earlier tenors, starting in 1850, had already augmented the role of Macduff by replacing this cabaletta with a solo cabaletta from Alzira concerning a disruption of a wedding (Full score, p. xxxix). But it is Escudier’s proposed alteration of the brindisi, the toast to the guests just before Banco’s ghost appears in the second-act banquet scene, that most encourages speculation. If Verdi had capitulated, the next step (as I try to imagine the Macbeth opera that Escudier really wanted) would have been to reconstruct the brindisi as a duet for Lady and Macduff, with a sketch of an embrace at the end; next, Lady and Macduff could exchange significant glances when Macbeth sees Banco’s ghost. The end of the Escudierization of Macbeth would require new music, a love duet in which soprano and tenor swear to be true to one another, after the crackpot husband—the normal inconvenient baritone—has been eliminated. Such a movement toward the rhythms of the erotic would demote the supernatural scenes to bad dreams; but in Macbeth the whole foreground is governed by the chronology of nightmare, and Macbeth had to be a sort of anti-opera in order to exist on the musical stage at all.

I’m not sure whether a performance (of either version) based on the critical edition would sound much different from the score that we’re used to. Prof. Lawton tells in detail how errors crept into the score, but there seem to be few places where he’s confident that his version will be audibly superior to the old ones. One occurs in the sleepwalking scene, measure 119: “In the passage leading up to the high b[-flat]”, two notes and the turn were omitted in all MS score copies … and every subsequent edition contains this mistake. V[erdi]’s notation is not only as clear as can be, but the effect of the music gains enormously from following it” (Critical Commentary, pp. 225-26). But clarity of text, like clarity of whim, is important in performing an opera, and I would very much like to hear a Macbeth based on this score. Prof. Lawton has contributed significantly to one of the most distinguished series in the history of music publishing.

Daniel Albright
Harvard University

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