On March 14, 1847, Giuseppe Verdi premiered his version of “Macbeth” to roaring disapproval. It would take another two decades to premiere an updated version of an opera he deemed among his finest accomplishments.
While the changes are nowhere near as wild as those for “Don Carlo,” “Simon Boccanegra” or even “La Forza del Destino,” there are a few major differences between both versions of this great work. Here’s a look.
Lady Macbeth’s Original Aria
Of Lady Macbeth’s arias, “La Luce Langue” might be the finest from a dramatic standpoint. The character’s dark side is portrayed in all its splendor with music descending into the very depths of her voice, expressing her great evil. In contrast to her other arias from the first act, which show her power, this one shows an emotional descent.
But it did not exist in the original version of the opera. In its place was the florid “Trionfai! Securi alfine.” While certainly an engaging piece filled with fiendish coloratura, it does not add a new dimension to her character, hueing rather closely to her drinking song a few scenes later.
This was a must, considering that the 1865 revision was to be showcased in Paris. It remains omitted these days, but it could add new insight into Macbeth’s psyche after learning of the prophecy, assuming it is in the right hands.
The glorious chorus that opens Act 4 of the opera was also a creation in 1865. The original version actually invoked Scotland directly in its title. As is to be expected, this version of the chorus feels more at home in an early Verdi opera, the harmonies and melodic line more straight-forward. Whereas the revised version sets a haunting mood that leaves the listener chilled for the rest of the evening, the original chorus grabs you emotionally right away, but hardly feels all that different from better chorus passages that Verdi wrote before or after (“Va pensiero” anyone?).
The End of Act 3
Macbeth once had an aria to conclude his big encounter with the witches. But in revising the opera, Verdi decided to bring back the Lady and have the two engage in a potent “Vendetta” duet that seals their fate. Macbeth’s aria really adds little to his power, showing his conflict over the latest prophecies but hardly developing his character any further than it had already been. The duet strengthens the resolve of the couple, pushing them to the true brink of madness as they scream for more violence, the two finally openly on the same side.
We could divide this up into sections, but the bottom line is that everything from the opening of the scene all the way through to the final notes are one massive revision. Macbeth’s vocal lines are altered as he calls his troops to follow him into battle. The entire battle music in 1847 sounds nothing like the 1865 result, sounding more akin to something one might find in a Donizetti opera instead of a Verdi work. The 1865 music instead is set in fugue structure, giving the entire sequence formality and chaos at the same time. Macbeth ended the original version with a brief aria. While it gives the titular character the final work, the passage is actually quite anticlimactic when propped up next to the celebratory chorus that ends the 1865 edition of the opera.
Which version of the operatic Scottish play do you like better?