GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813-1901):


The opera takes place in Scotland in the 11th century. The orchestral prelude contains themes from the opera: a woodwind theme from the witches' scene at the start of Act III, a passage from the apparition scene in the same Act, and music from Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene in Act IV.

Act I

Scene 1: A heath

The opera opens with three groups of witches gathered in the woods beside a battlefield. Their music is a two-part choral piece sung first in minor and then in major keys. They exchange stories of the evils they have done and hail two Scottish generals, Macbeth and Banco. They hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, a title he holds by inheritance, Thane of Cawdor, and king "hereafter".  They hail Banco as "lesser than Macbeth, but greater", not a king himself, but the progenitor of a line of future kings.

Although Macbeth and Banco try to learn more, the witches disappear. Just as the witches have predicted, messengers from the King appear to name Macbeth Thane of Cawdor. At first, Macbeth protests, contending that the true holder of that title is very much alive. The messengers explain that the former Thane has been executed as a traitor. Banco doesn't trust the witches and is surprised at the fulfillment of their prophecies. Macbeth and Banco's duet is filled with broken lines and exclamations.  Macbeth talks about how close he is to the throne and whether or not he will need to take action to obtain it. Banco questions whether or not the minions of Hell will sometimes reveal an honest truth in order to lead one to future damnation.

Scene 2: Macbeth's castle

In the famous Letter Scene, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from Macbeth telling her about his encounter with the witches. At this point she is speaking, not singing. At "Ambizioso spirto tu sei, Macbetto" ("You are an ambitious soul, Macbeth"), she bursts into song. Her tone shifts as the melody descends, and she sings "Ma sarai tu malvagio?" ("But will you be ruthless?"). She's determined to see her husband on the throne, by fair means or foul. In the revised version of the opera, she changes tone yet again and sings "Vieni! T'affretta!" ("Come! Hurry!"), vowing to follow her ambitions.Singing "Accendere ti vo' quell freddo core!" ("I want to set fire to your cold heart!"), she reveals her intention to motivate her husband to do evil.Advised that King Duncan will stay in the castle that night, Lady Macbeth is determined to have him killed. She sings "O tutti, sorget" ("Arise now, all you minesters of hell"). When Macbeth returns home, his wife encourages him to kill the King. The King and his noblemen arrive. Although Macbeth is initially emboldened to carry out the deadly act: "Mi si affaccia un pugnale?" "(Is this a dagger that I see before me?"), he then wavers in horror at the thought of murder. The score indicates that Macbeth is not to sing in full voice until he looks down and sees his bloody hands: "O vista, o vista orribile!" "(What a terrible sight!").   He tells his wife that he was unable to say "amen" to the guards' night prayers. Lady Macbeth dismisses his reaction as "Follie!" ("That's madness!"). Disgusted by her husband's cowardice, Lady Macbeth ridicules Macbeth for his inability to return the dagger to the crime scene. She completes the crime on his behalf and incriminates the sleeping guards by both smearing them with Duncan's blood and by planting Macbeth's dagger on them. Macduff arrives for an appointment with the King and discovers the murder, with Banco standing guard. Macduff rouses the castle and Banco bears witness to the murder. The chorus calls out to God to avenge the killing: "Dchiudi, inferno,…"("Open wide they gaping maw, O Hell").

Act II

Scene 1: A room in the castle

Macbeth is now king. Duncan's son Malcolm, suspected of the murder, has fled the country. Macbeth is troubled by the witches' prophecy that Banco, not he, will create a great royal line. To prevent the prophecy from coming true, he tells Lady Macbeth that he will have both Banco and his son murdered when they come for a banquet. Lady Macbeth encourages her husband, turning the screw by singing "Immoto sarai tu nel tuo disegno?" ("Will you be firm in your intention?"). In the revised version of the opera, Lady Macbeth exults in the powers of darkness in the extraordinary aria: "La luce langue" ("The light fades"). The music expresses a range of emotions, including thoughtfulness, decisiveness, self-justification, warming to the thought, and ultimately thrilling in the anticipation of still more murder to advance her cause.

Scene 2: Outside the castle

Two gangs of murderers lie in wait for Banco and his son. The apprehensive Banco sings "Come dal ciel precipita" ("O, how the darkness falls from heaven"). Although the murderers catch Banco, his son Fleanzio escapes.

Scene 3: Dining hall in the castle

Macbeth receives the guests and Lady Macbeth sings a brindisi or drinking song: "Si colmi il calice" ("Fill up the cup"). As in La Traviata, still to come, the chorus answers in unison. The brindisi is characterized by leaps and drops, suggesting the difficulty of holding on to sanity. Upon receiving notice of the assassination, Macbeth returns to the table only to find the ghost of Banco sitting in his place. Thrown off guard by the apparition, Macbeth raves at the ghost, leading the guests to believe that he has gone mad. Maintaining her happy party face in order to mask her inner feelings, Lady Macbeth temporarily calms the situation by calling for a toast to the absent Banco, whose death has not yet been made public. The ghost appears again and terrifies Macbeth into another episode of insanity. Macduff resolves to leave the country, claiming that a cursed hand rules it and that only the wicked may remain. Macbeth's talk of ghosts and witches terrifies the guests. They exclaim "Macbetto e soffrente. Partiamo" ("Macbeth isn't feeling well. We'll go").  Lady Macbeth urges the crowd to stay, then turns to her husband and asks him "E un ueoo voi siete?" ("What kind of man are you?"). The guests depart hurriedly as the banquet ends.


Act III: The witches' cave

The witches gather around a cauldron in a dark cave. When Macbeth enters, they conjure up three apparitions: (1) beware of Macduff; (2) Macbeth cannot be harmed by a man "born of woman"; and (3) Macbeth cannot be conquered until Birnam Wood marches against him. Macbeth responds by singing "O lieto augurio" ("O, happy augury! No wood has ever moved by magic power"). In some but not all productions, a ballet is inserted here. Some critics claim that the ballet destroys the unification of the drama.

The witches then show Macbeth the ghost of Banco and his descendants, eight future Kings of Scotland, thus verifying the original prophecy. Macbeth responds by singing "Fuggi regal fantasima" ("Begone, royal phantom that reminds me of Banco"). He collapses but then regains consciousness in the castle.

In the original version, Act III ends with Macbeth's recovery and resolution to reassert his authority: "Vada in fiamme, e in polve cada" ("Madcuff's lofty stronghold shall/Be set fire"). In the revised version, a herald announces the arrival of Lady Macbeth. She and her husband sing a duet: "Vi trovo alfin!" ("I've found you at last"). Macbeth tells his wife about his encounter with the witches and the two then plot to track down and kill Banco's son and Macduff and his family. They don't yet know that Macduff has already left the country. They sing the duet: "Ora di morte e di vendetta" ("Hour of death and of vengeance").

Act IV

Scene 1: Near the border between England and Scotland

Scottish refugees stand near the English border and the chorus sings "Patria oppressa" ("Down-trodden country"). Although both the original and revised versions of the opera use the same libretto, in the original version the choral number is less ominous, has a shorter orchestral introduction, and is sung straight through by the entire chorus. In the revised version, which is two minutes longer than the original, the music is divided into sections for male and female members, and it unites them at the end.  Although the choral number is one of Verdi's greatest, it evokes misery and barrenness. Unlike the popular "Va, pensiero" from Nabucco, the audience doesn't whistle the tune on the way to the theater.

Birnam Wood is in the distance. Macduff is determined to avenge the deaths of his wife and children at the hand of the tyrant. He sings "Ah, la paterna mano" "(Ah, the paternal hand"), a lovely bel canto aria that was added during the opera's revision but that doesn't quite fit with the rest of the opera. Malcolm, son of the murdered King Duncan, and the English army join him. Macduff orders each soldier to cut a branch from a tree in Birnam Wood and carry it as they attack Macbeth's army. Their goal is to liberate Scotland from tyranny: "La patria tradita" ("Our country betrayed").

Scene 2: Macbeth's castle

A doctor and servant observe Lady Macbeth as she sleepwalks, wringing her hands and attempting to clean them of blood: "Una macchia e qui tuttora!" ("Yet here's a spot"). She raves about the deaths of Duncan, Banco, and Macduff's family, claiming that all the perfumes of Arabia would not clean the blood from her hands. The horrified witnesses would not dare to repeat what she has said to any living man.

Scene 3: The battlefield

Macbeth has learned that an army of Scottish rebels backed by England is advancing against him, but he's reassured by the words of the apparitions that no man born of woman can harm him. Nonetheless, he knows that he is already hated and feared and that there will be no compassion, honor, or love for him in his old age even if he wins the battle: "Pieta, rispetto, amore (Compassion, honor, love"). Learning of Lady Macbeth's death, he reacts indifferently. Macbeth rallies his troops and learns that Birnam Wood has indeed come to his castle. The battle begins.

In the original version of the opera, Macduff pursues and fights Macbeth, and the latter falls to the ground. Macduff tells Macbeth that he was not of woman born, but rather ripped from the womb (i.e. born by Caesarian section). Macbeth is mortally wounded and sings a final aria: "Mal per me che m'affidai" ("Trusting in the prophecies of Hell"). While the dying Macbeth proclaims that trusting in the prophecies of hell caused his downfall, Macduff's men proclaim Malcolm to be the new King.

In the revised version, Macduff pursues and wounds Macbeth. He tells Macbeth that he was not born of woman, and Macbeth responds in anguish: "Cielo!" ("Heaven"). The two continue fighting and disappear from view. Macduff returns, indicating victory over Macbeth, and then turns to hail Malcolm King. The scene ends with a hymn to victory sung by bards, soldiers, and Scottish women: "Salve, o re!" "(Hail, oh King!"). King Malcolm and hero Macduff vow to restore the realm to greatness.

Highlights of the Opera

  • Macbeth is a tale of power, superstition, and political intrigue. Although the title of the opera suggests that Macbeth alone is the focus, the center of the story is the highly charged relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, his wife. Both the music and the text explore the ways in which the couple relates to one another. The emotions of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth vary significantly. Each expresses certain feelings while alone, and the two together express different emotions. The music illustrates exactly what is going on with individual characters and the Macbeths as a married couple.
  • Another dominant theme is the contrast between darkness and light. The opera begins in a dark place as the witches predict the future for Macbeth and Banco. Later in the opera, Lady Macbeth sings "La Luce Langue" ("The Light is Fading").
  • The opera is based on the Shakespearean play of the same name that was written around 1606. The choice was an odd one in mid nineteenth century Italy. It has no love story, unless you count the ungodly pact that binds the Macbeths. In fact, the opera became known colloquially as "l'opera senza amore'' (i.e. the opera without love"). Shakespeare based the play, as well as King Lear and Cymbeline, on a 1577 history entitled The Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Interestingly, although Verdi loved Shakespeare, he did not read the original work until after the first performance of the opera. He chose Macbeth because of the availability of first-class baritone Felice Varesi.
  • The first performance of Macbeth took place on March 14, 1847.  Several weeks after the successful premiere, Verdi contacted his long-time benefactor and former father-in-law, Antonio Barezzi, and dedicated the opera to him with gratitude for his strong support. The opera was performed all over Italy in twenty-one different locations. The US premiere took place in 1850, and the first performance in the UK took place in Manchester in 1860.
  • In 1865, Verdi revised the original version of Macbeth. The work was produced in a French translation at Theatre-Lyrique Imperial du Chatelet in Paris. The revision included the removal of two cabalettas, new music for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Acts I and III, the addition of a ballet in Act III, changes to the endings of Acts III and IV (e.g. Macbeth's off-stage death), and the addition of a triumphal choral ending. This second version was less successful than the original.
  • The music of Macbeth may sound odd to 21st century ears. As in bel canto operas, major keys don't necessarily mean happiness and minor keys sadness. For example, during Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene, she sings in the key of D-major. Simultaneously, the music is very unsettling, characterized by frequent shifts in dynamics, forte outbursts, and caressing murmurs. There is both melody and instability in dynamics and articulation. The overall effect is magnificent.

Upcoming Opera Events

  • Metropolitan Opera Live in HD: March 18, 2023 and the following Wednesday, Wagner's Lohengrin
  • Triangle Wagner Society: April 23, 2023, James Holman lecture "The Wagner Symphony"
  • NC Opera: April 14 and 16, 2023, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess
  • Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle: March 26, 2023, Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice
  • Mallarme Music: April 1, 2023, Frank Walker's Life of a Bee with LaToya Lain and Andrea Edith Moore

About this Website

The website contains links to the music we will hear and other background information.

Questions and Additional Information

Please reach out to Instructor Margie Satinsky with questions and requests for additional information. Contact information is: (919) 383-5998 (home/work), or (919) 812-2235 (cell/text), or margiesatinsky@icloud.com.