Giuseppe Verdi was always fascinated by the plays of Shakespeare; he wrote three operas based on them, and contemplated a fourth (based on King Lear) but was never able to find the proper libretto. Macbeth was the earliest of these Shakespeare adaptations, and a work which never quite satisfied the composer. The first version of the opera premiered in 1847 in Florence, but the version best known today is the revision the composer made for the 1865 Parisian revival. The changes include a new aria for Lady Macbeth in Act Two, the addition of a ballet scene for the witches, and the removal of Macbeth's death scene. In nearly every scene, there are at least some minor changes.
There is a famous letter in which Verdi states that Lady Macbeth must not have a beautiful voice, but must portray the evil of her character. It is difficult to reconcile this statement with the music he composed for her, which is some of the most florid, difficult, and dramatic of his career. Her entrance begins with a spoken reading of the letter from Macbeth, followed by a recitative. In her Sleepwalking scene, we find Verdi at his most dramatic, with the vocal line being more spoken than sung, yet at the end she is required to rise to a high D flat as softly as possible. The title role, while not as complex, requires considerable dramatic flair, as well as the bel canto line to bring off his aria, "Pietà, rispetto, amore." Of the secondary characters, Macduff and Banquo are most notable, and both have lovely arias.
Shakespeare's three witches become a three-part chorus whose music inspires more laughter than fear in this setting. Choruses denouncing tyranny often brought out the best in Verdi, and so it is not surprising that the patriotic choral outcry before Macduff's aria is among the strongest pieces in the work. The ballet music written for the premiere of the revised version in Paris is usually omitted today without much harm to the score.
The performance history of Macbeth was relatively sparse until it was revived in German in the 1930s; since that time the opera has had continued success, although it did not reach the Metropolitan Opera until 1959. Part of the problem was the casting of Lady Macbeth. Although it asks for high Cs, and even a D flat, in the Sleepwalking scene, the role lies very low for most sopranos. The early German revivals often cast the role with a mezzo-soprano; today the role is entrusted to any singer who feels that she can adequately portray the role. Two of the greatest singing actresses of the twentieth century had a great success with the role: Maria Callas (although she only sang it five times) and Leonie Rysanek (who sang the Metropolitan Opera premiere). In its best moments, Macbeth conveys all of the drama of Shakespeare and melds it with some of Verdi's finest music.