The Bard Goes to the Opera: Verdi's 'Macbeth'

macbeth-folioHave you ever been disappointed by the film version of a favorite novel? Ever stayed away from movies or plays based on stories from any other medium because experience tells you the transition is almost never successful? If so, who could blame you?

Adapting any work of art to another genre is tricky business, and it seems the better the original the harder it is to transform it. Perhaps, when it's tried with true masterpieces, there are so many variables, egos and expectations involved that the whole mess just gums up the works.

In the case of Giuseppe Verdi, however, those complications simply validate his genius. Historically, the plays of Shakespeare have been particularly difficult to translate into opera. All manner of composers have tried it, resulting in some 300 Shakespeare-based operas. Remarkably, only a half-dozen or so -- about 2 percent -- have even paid a visit to the standard repertory. Even more remarkably, Verdi wrote three of those: Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff.

Macbeth was Verdi's first Shakespeare opera, and he began it late in 1846 for a production in Florence. The composer chose his stories carefully, and he had always admired Shakespeare. But this time the choice was purely practical: the only other story Verdi had in his creative pipeline needed a tenor for the lead role, and no reliable tenors were available. The title role of Macbeth called for a baritone, and one of the best baritones in Italy was at hand.

From the start, Verdi decided this score would be one of his best, if only in homage to its subject. He called Shakespeare's play "one of mankind's greatest creations." He worked closely with the librettist, Franceso Piave, and had a strong hand -- some said a heavy hand -- in casting and production decisions. For example, Verdi vetoed the theater's first choice of sopranos to play Lady Macbeth. He said the singer they chose was too attractive, and had too pleasing a voice to portray such a sinister character.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Verdi's Macbeth in a production from the Royal Theater in Madrid, starring soprano Violeta Urmana as Lady Macbeth and baritone Dimitris Tiliakos in the title role.