opera-inside, Verdi, Macbeth, Inhalt, Synopsis, Zusammenfassung

Online opera guide and synopsis to Verdi’s MACBETH

If the success of an opera were determined by its greatness, Macbeth would be at the forefront of the opera-goers’ favour. Perhaps it is the lack of a love story (Italians call Verdi’s Macbeth “l’opera senza amore”) that stands in the way of the popularity of this work. It cannot be the music. The work has no weak minute and captivates the listener from the beginning to the end. It is musically and artistically on a par with Verdi’s two other Shakespeare works, Otello and Falstaff.







♪ Act I  (Witch scene, Duet and murder scene)

♪ Act II  (Banco’s death, Banquet scene)

♪ Act III  (Witch scene, Duet scene)

♪ Act IV (Sleepwalking scene, Macbeth’s death, Finale)



Coro di streghe (Witch scene Act I)

Vieni! t’affretta accendere… Or tutti sorgete

Fatal mia donna (Duet 1st act)

Si colmi il calice

La luce langue

Patria oppressa

Una macchia è qui tuttora (Sleepwalking scene)

Pietà, rispetto, amore, conforte ai di cadenti



Recording recommendation

♪ Recording recommendation





Roles and synopsis





Florence, 1847


Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei based on the drama of the same name by William Shakespeare

The main roles

Macbeth, commander of the Scottish king (baritone) - Lady Macbeth, his wife (soprano or mezzo-soprano) - Banco, commander of the Scottish king (bass) - Macduff, Scottish nobleman (tenor) - Malcolm, King Duncan's son (tenor)

Recording recommendation

DG with Shirley Verrett, Piero Cappuccilli and Placido Domingo conducted by Claudio Abbado and the Choir and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan. Especially because of Maria Callas, the following recording is also highly recommended: EMI, Maria Callas, Gino Penno and Enzo Mascherini conducted by Victor de Sabata and the Choir and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan.








Verdi overcomes a personal crisis

Verdi was 33 years old when he began writing Macbeth. He was mentally and physically in a deep crisis. The death of his wife and children and lack of professional recognition had left traces. This crisis erupted in the form of Macbeth to an immense artistic productivity.

In biographical terms, Macbeth belongs to Verdi’s early works, but musically and musically-dramatically Verdi made a huge leap with this opera. It is fascinating that this work comes out of the blue, and there is no predecessor work. Neither in Verdi’s work nor in a work by another composer.


Pavesi’s libretto and Shakespeare’s work

Verdi was already an ardent admirer of the English playwright at an early age. But a one-to-one takeover of the plot was impossible. To make Macbeth “suitable for opera” Verdi and Piave had to shorten Shakespeare’s work drastically and to concentrate on a few scenes. They also added several new passages to get suitable music-dramatic scenes. Partly they intervened in the plot in this way. For example, they assign all crime decisions to the person of the Lady Macbeth to create a maximum stage effect. In Verdi’s work, the Lady Macbeth is clearly the main character, whereas in the literary model, this role was assigned to Macbeth.

Macbeth was Piave’s third libretto for Verdi. Verdi appreciated his reliability, but did not believe Piave was capable to write truly innovative texts. He repeatedly instructed Pavesi to use a short and catchy language. Verdi even went so far as to have parts of his texts revised by another lyricist. In the end, Piave provided a great source of inspiration for the music and the two of them succeeded in capturing the demon of Shakespeare’s original with text and music.


Verdi‘s music drama

Verdi was always a composer who attached the highest importance to the text. In 1847 he wrote in a letter that he wanted to make music “that is bound to the word and the situation; and I wish that the artists understand these my ideas exactly, so I wish that the artists serve the poet more than the composer”. An interesting remark by Verdi was recorded by Marcello Conati: “When we came to Wagner, Verdi remarked that this great genius had rendered an invaluable service to the opera, as he had had the courage to break free from the tradition of number opera. In his Macbeth, he too had tried to fuse music and drama, but unlike Wagner, he was not able to write his own libretti.”



The „Tinta musicale“ of Macbeth

Verdi wrote Macbeth for the impresario Lanari, who was receptive to experiments and gave Verdi the space to create the unusual.

Verdi’s ingenious strategy of giving each opera its own musical colour (he called it “tinta musicale”) paid off in Macbeth to the highest degree. What does the tinta of Macbeth consist of? For one thing, there are the gloomy scenes of madness and witches.  On the other hand, the leading roles are not played by the classical tenor and soprano, but by a baritone with a deep voice and dark sound and a mezzo whose voice can produce the darkest colours.


The choir makes the work a triangular affair

Rossini always emphasized the strong effect of Verdi’s music in  dark works. In Macbeth scenes of witches, visions and madness make the listener shudder. Verdi used the chorus very effectively, and it can be postulated that he assigned the third leading role in this work to the witch chorus, which, without being the subject of a love story, leads us to a triangular story. The man at the mercy of two female powers.


The political background

Of course Macbeth fits into the political scheme of Verdi. It is a story of a tyrant (Macbeth) who stands in the way of a constitutive democracy with an “enlightened” king (Duncan). Thus Verdi also gave this opera a freedom choir (Patria opressa).


The premiere

Verdi later called the performance “no fiasco”. In fact, he had 38 curtain calls. The work spread from the beginning, although not as fast as the soon following “Trilogia popolare” (Traviata, Rigoletto, Trovatore), which pushed Macbeth into the background and finally almost banned the work from the stage.


Verdi’s beloved child

Verdi suffered from the reserved reception for a work which was so dear to his heart throughout his life. His affection for this work was also evident in the fact that he dedicated it to his beloved patron Antonio Barezzi. A revision 20 years after the premiere could not change this. This version for Paris could not prevail, and the first (Florentine) version remained the most frequently performed one.








Overture –  Chailly


The appearance of the witches

Synopsis:Witches have gathered in a forest.

The appearance of the witches amazes with surprising changes from major to minor and rapidly changing tempi and rhythms.

Verdi deliberately placed the Witches’ Choir at the beginning. He wanted to establish the musical colour of the work right at the beginning (see the section in the introduction to the “Tinta musicale” of this work).

Coro di streghe  –  Abbado


Synopsis: Macbeth and Banco are on their way home from a victorious battle and meet the witches. They prophesy Macbeth that he will become the ruler of Caudor and later be crowned king of Scotland. Banco asks about his fate. The witches prophesy that he will not become king, but that of kings the father. A messenger appears and announces that the ruler of Caudor has been executed and that Macbeth will take his place. The first part of the prophecy has come true, and Macbeth is only one step away from the crown. Macbeth turns pale and thoughts of murder appear. Banco senses that Macbeth has changed.

Due vaticini compiuti or sono  –  Morris / Bruson


Synopsis: The witches disappear.

The appearance of the witches in a fiery interpretation by Ricardo Muti.

S’allontanarono  – Muti


Verdi’s view of the role of Lady Macbeth

Synopsis: In the castle Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband. She learns about the witches’ oracle. Macbeth wants to know whether she is ready to walk over dead bodies to aspire to the royal throne. Her ambition is boundless, she wants to do everything in her power to help her husband obtain the royal crown. A servant appears and announces that the king will pay them a visit in the castle. A murder plot takes shape.

Verdi demanded that the Lady Macbeth should declaim the content of the letter and not to sing it.  That the composer let the prima donna read a letter at her first performance instead of letting her shine with a bravura aria was outrageous at that time. In addition, Verdi demanded that Marianna Barbieri-Nini, the Lady Macbeth of the premiere, make his conception of the role consistently ugly (which is documented in a letter).

We hear this aria in 3 versions. We begin with Maria Callas.

The year 1952 was perhaps Maria Callas’ most glorious year in her professional carreer. In this year she finally established herself as an assoluta. On 7 November 1952 Maria Callas sang one of the most important performances of her career. Macbeth was planned as the season opening of La Scala. Her Lady Macbeth was sensational and the hype about her turned into a Callas mania.

Karl Böhm once called the Greek woman “the greatest tragic actress in the world”. The interpretation of the following aria lets the listener experience the correctness of his statement. No other singer had the possibilities available to Callas to draw the Lady Macbeth dramatically and musically in every detail grandiose. It is thanks to her that this opera has returned to the repertoire.

Vieni! t’affretta accendere… Or tutti sorgete (1)  –  Callas


For those interested, I have also included the second great and vibrant recording of Callas, which she had sung in a recital 8 months earlier. The tempo is a bit slower.

Vieni! t’affretta accendere… Or tutti sorgete (2)  –  Callas


Shirley Verrett delighted as Lady Macbeth in the recording of Abbado as a demonic lady.

Vieni! t’affretta accendere… Or tutti sorgete (3)  –  Verrett



A “musical marital quarrel”

Synopsis: Back in the castle, Macbeth still hesitates to take the fateful step, but he has nothing to counter his wife. Finally he agrees to take the step, also driven by his own ambition. The king appears with his retinue and at night Macbeth stabs him in his bed. From now on he is tormented by the memories of this act and he knows that he will never again find a peaceful sleep. His wife does not understand his torments of conscience.

For Verdi this duet was one of the key scenes of the opera. He wrote in a letter: “The duet between the Lady and Macbeth and the night-walking scene are the two most important parts of the opera. They must absolutely not be sung. They must be translated into action and declaimed in a hollow, veiled voice, otherwise they have no effect at all.”

Verdi was relentless in the preparation of the premiere, the singer Barbieri-Nini reported that he had rehearsed this scene 150 times with her. Verdi’s reputation as a “tyrant” began with this opera.

The murder is not visible on stage. Only a brief dramatic motif in “tutto è finito” hints at the crime. This restless motive in the violins underlines the duet “fatal mia donna” by Macbeth and his wife.

In their book “A Story of the Opera”, Abbate/Parker describe this scene as a “musical marital quarrel”: “Both figures articulate themselves predominantly in choppy phrases. In the first two movements Macbeth makes sporadic attempts to introduce more traditional elements of expression, but both times Lady Macbeth rains on his parade, even silences him. That her overexcited coloraturas return is unusual and contributes to the impression that the whole duet is a single musical marital quarrel. What had traditionally had a decorative and ornamental function, here marks hysteria”.

Fatal mia donna  –  Verrett / Cappuccilli



Synopsis: Macduff finds the King dead in bed. The news spreads through the castle and horror grips everyone.

Schiudi, inferno, la bocca ed inghiotti  –  Muti







Synopsis:  The suspicion falls upon the heir to the throne, Malcolm. When he flees to England, the way is clear for Macbeth. He receives the royal title, but feels threatened by the witches’ prophecy. Together with his wife he decides to let more blood flow.

The aria “la luce langue” is one of the passages that Verdi wrote for the second (Parisian) version and which found its way into later productions. The aria with its chromatisms helped to underline the demonic nature of Lady Macbeth.

We hear this aria sung by Maria Callas. In the words of Kesting (“Maria Callas”): “The way she sings ‘nuovo delitto’ and ‘è neccessario’ goes far beyond the dynamic contrast: it is the madness of political ambition transformed into a sound figure”.

La luce langue, il faro spegnesi  –   Callas



The ambush

Synopsis: In a forest. Assassins have gathered to ambush Banco and his son.

Chi oso mandarvi a voi  –  Minnesota Opera


Synopsis: They’re on their way to Macbeth’s castle. Banco finds death, but his son escapes.

Studia il passo  –  Colombara



Lady Macbeth’s brindisi

Synopsis: Meanwhile, a banquet is held in the castle. Lady Macbeth welcomes the guests with a Brindisi.

With this great drinking song (an invention of Verdi and Piave), Verdi paints the picture of an unscrupulous woman who sings a cheerful song while the gruesome crime takes place in the forest.

We hear the drinking song in the interpretation by Shirley Verrett. With the role of Lady Macbeth, Verrett switched from mezzo to soprano in the seventies. This caused a sensation, as the vocal path is usually reversed, as the voice becomes deeper with age and loses the elasticity of height. Verrett had a dark, beautiful voice, which was slimmer, but more agile than that of other dramatic sopranos, which benefited the coloraturas of this aria.

Si colmi il calice (1)  –  Verrett


Anna Netrebko took on the role debut of Lady Macbeth in 2018. The role fitted perfectly into the development of her voice, which had become darker in previous years but kept the vocal power for this role.

Si colmi il calice (2)  –  Netrebko



Macbeth‘s madness scene

Synopsis: Hypocritically Macbeth reports the guests that Banco is still missing. He’s secretly told of Banco’s murder and his son’s escape. Suddenly, he is overcome by a vision. He sees the figure of Banco on the chair next to him and he begins to talk to him. With horror the guests realize that an overnight king is talking to a ghost. His wife tries to save the situation with a drinking song, but Macbeth completely loses his temper.

The first Macbeth was Felice Varesi. Verdi held him in high esteem and he later became the first Rigoletto and Germont-Père. In a letter Verdi went so far as to make the composition of Macbeth depend on whether Varesi was available for the role. What Verdi especially appreciated in him was his acting and intelligence. Furthermore “that he was small and ugly. It doesn’t matter that he can’t hit every note, since most of the part is declamation.”

Cappuccillis’ conception of the role would certainly have been to Verdi’s liking. We hear his introverted, dark interpretation of Macbeth.

Va’ spirto d’abisso  –  Cappuccilli









The prophecies of the apparitions

Synopsis: Macbeth decides to visit the witches to learn more about their prophecies.

Tre volte miagola la gatta in fregola


Synopsis: Among the witches are three apparitions which announce the prophecies. The first warns him to beware of Macduff. The second warns that no man born of woman could harm him. The third, that he is invincible until a forest like an army advances to attack.

Finché appelli  –  Bruson



Synopsis: At last eight kings appear, passing by him, whose last banco is. Macbeth sees his fears confirmed and collapses.

Piero Cappuccilli was one of the great Verdi baritones of the second half of the 20th century. His Macbeth under Abbado was one of his best recordings. His vocal artistry like the legato and the coherent role portrait are convincing.

Fuggi regal fantasma  –  Cappuccilli



Synopsis: When he wakes up, his wife is with him. He tells her the prophecy and they decide to destroy Macduff, Malcolm and their families out of the way.

Verdi composed the dramatic duet “Ora di morte” for this scene.

We hear it in the interpretation of two great singers. One of the most renowned Lady Macbeth after the war was Leonie Rysanek. The Austrian singer was a passionate interpreter with fire. We hear her with Leonard Warren in this duet of the third act.

Verdi composed the dramatic duet “Ora di morte” for this scene.

We hear it in the interpretation of two great singers. One of the most renowned Lady Macbeth after the war was Leonie Rysanek. The Austrian singer was a passionate interpreter with fire. We hear her with Leonard Warren in this duet of the third act.

Ora di morte e di vendetta –  Rysanek / Warren






A homeland anthem of Verdi

Synopsis: Macduff and his troops are camped along the border. They mourn their exile and the fate of their country terrorized by Macbeth.

In classical style Verdi composed with “Patria oppressa” a piece that became famous not least for political reasons as a nostalgic homeland anthem.

Patria oppressa  –  Abbado



Synopsis: Macduff managed to save himself, but his family was destroyed.

We hear this aria by Macduff in the glorious interpretation of the young voice of Placido Domingo in the 1976 Abbado recording.

O figli, o figli miei… Ah, la paterna mano  –  Domingo   



Synopsis: His army has joined forces with Malcolm’s troops. They camouflage themselves with branches from the forest of Birnam and advance on the castle of Macbeth.

La patria tradita



The great sleepwalking scene

Synopsis: In the castle Lady Macbeth is tormented by visions. In a state of mental derangement she tries to wipe imaginary bloodstains from her hands.

Verdi explicitly demanded that the Lady Macbeth of the premiere sing “ugly”. A singer originally intended for this role was explicitly refused by Verdi, because she “sang too beautifully and if the sleepwalking scene did not work, the whole opera would be ruined”. Amazing words in a time when Donizetti was still alive and Bellini hadn’t been dead for long! The aria ends with a beautiful “fil di voce”, a sound dying at altitude, which takes the voice to the high Des.

We hear this famous sleepwalking scene in two interpretations.

Critics agree that Maria Callas’ interpretation of this scene is one of the greatest in the recording history of opera music. Ardoin spoke of “one of the most descriptive moments of singing ever captured on record” and Kesting said that “even when repeatedly listening to the astonishment, there is no end to the wealth of tonal, gestural details. Only one person, Verdi himself, could have dreamed of this”.

Una macchia è qui tuttora (1)  –  Callas


Leonie Rysanek’s role-portrait of Lady Macbeth was that of a furious and energetic woman. The sleepwalking scene is ecstatic and ends in a spectacular final note.

Una macchia è qui tuttora (2)  –  Rysanek



Synopsis: Macbeth realizes that the prophecies are gradually being fulfilled and suspects that he will soon die.

Verdi did not miss the opportunity to give the baritone an effective closing aria. After a few recitative-like opening bars, a slow cantilena begins.

We hear the aria in 2 interpretations.

The American Verdi-baritone par excellence was Leonard Warren. His voice was more dramatic than beautiful, and blessed with incredible power, which greatly benefited the role of Macbeth.

Pietà, rispetto, amore, conforte ai di cadenti (1)  –  Warren


A second expressive version by Hvorostovsky.

Pietà, rispetto, amore, conforte ai di cadenti (2)  –  Hvorostovsky


Synopsis: Apathetically, he take note of his wife’s death. When he is told that the forest of Birnam is moving towards the castle he wants to fight his last battle. When he learns in a duel with Macduff that his opponent was born with a caesarean section, the last prophecy comes true and he falls in the duel. The troops celebrate the victory and Malcolm is crowned the new king.

The opera ends with a hymn from the second Parisian version. It replaced the death scene of Macbeth.

Inno di vittoria  –  Abbado

Recording recommendation of the opera MACBETH


DG with Shirley Verrett, Piero Cappuccilli and Placido Domingo conducted by Claudio Abbado and the Choir and Orchestra of La Scala Milan.


Especially because of Maria Callas, the following recording is also highly recommended:

EMI with Maria Callas and Enzo Mascherini conducted by Victor de Sabata and the Choir and Orchestra of La Scala Milan.



Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on MACBETH by Giuseppe Verdi.


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