Opera Profile: Verdi’s Timeless ‘Macbeth’

By David Salazar

Verdi’s “Macbeth,” simply put, is one of the operas that defines his early period.

The work, which had its world premiere on March 14, 1847, didn’t go as planned. Being a lover of Shakespeare, the composer put everything he could into making it one of his finest works. In its first version, it flopped and some even called into question his respect for the Bard.

Verdi so loved this opera that in his middle period he revisited it and made major edits all around. That version had a premiere on April 19, 1865; it is this second iteration that is more often performed around the world.

Short Plot Summary

Macbeth and Banco run into a group of witches that proclaim that the former will be King of Scotland and the latter will have a long line of successors. Both men are troubled by this, especially when it is announced that Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor (another prophesy of the witches).

He writes to his wife who schemes to murder King Duncan, who is set to stay at the palace for a night. That evening, the Macbeths commit the murder and the following day, Macbeth seizes the crown.

However, he is paranoid of Banco’s part of the prophecy and Lady Macbeth urges him to murder Banco and his son to avoid that prophecy coming true. Banco is killed but his son escapes.

At a feast, Macbeth can’t shake the image of Banco’s ghost and the guests start to question his motives and legitimacy as king.

He returns to the witches asking for more help and sees three apparitions. One tells him to be aware of Macduff. The second tells him that he will not be harmed by “woman born of man.” The third tells him that he cannot be conquered until Birnam Wood moves against him. Then he is shown a vision of Banco’s ghost and his eight descendants, all kings of Scotland. The Macbeths plot to murder everyone in their way.

The refugees cry out for their homeland and Macduff weeps for his dead family. Malcolm, son of Duncan arrives urging everyone to march on Macbeth’s castle using branches from Birnam Wood for cover.

Lady Macbeth goes insane and dies while Macbeth ultimately loses in battle to Macduff, who was ripped from his mother’s womb and thus “not born of woman.” Malcolm becomes king.

Famous Musical Numbers

Lady Macbeth dominates the opera from start to finish and each of her arias is a major concert piece for sopranos. The famed sleepwalking scene is quite renowned for the D flat that the singer is asked to pull off at the climax.

Other Articles on Macbeth on OperaWire:

5 Major Differences Between Both Versions of Verdi’s “Macbeth”

Watch and Listen

Renato Bruson was one of the famed Macbeths of his time and Maria Guleghina was also a renowned interpreter of the female lead. Here they are from Milan.


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