Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Macbeth,” which closely follows Shakespeare’s original, centers on a man, his wife and their unquenchable — and doomed — quest for power.
“What makes it great to me is the arc of the man Macbeth himself,” explains Helena Binder, who is stage directing the Opera North production.
“It’s not a prophecy that makes him do what he does, it’s not the power of Lady Macbeth. It’s the suggestion that causes him, and human nature, to create his own destiny.”
And the Opera North production aims at delivering that human quality.
“I cast Macbeth and Lady Macbeth looking for humans rather than larger-than-life characters,” says Louis Burkot, the regional professional opera’s artistic director, who is conducting.
“I really wanted both of them to be vulnerable humans so that we care about them,” he says. “It’s obvious from the start that they’re up to no good, but I thought it would be more interesting if they were characters with a lot of vulnerability, and a lot of softer qualities in addition to the ambition.”
Opera North presents Verdi’s “Macbeth” Aug. 4-10, fully staged with orchestra, sung in the original Italian with English supertitles, at the Lebanon Opera House. The four performances will feature baritone Marcello Guzzo as Macbeth and soprano Sandra Lopez as Lady Macbeth.
In William Shakespeare’s 1606 play, the Scottish general Macbeth receives a prophecy from three witches that he will one day be King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred on by his wife, he kills King Duncan, resulting in a series of events that lead to Macbeth’s doom.
Verdi’s “Macbeth,” the composer’s 10th opera and his first based on a work by Shakespeare, premiered on March 14, 1847 at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence Italy. Verdi made changes, and the new version, which is being used by Opera North, appeared in 1865.
“The revision uses a lot more of the traditional ways of completing operas,” Burkot said recently by phone. “The 1847 version ends with the death of Macbeth. “This revision has a final scene where the chorus exalts upon the proclamation of Malcolm as the new king, ending on a more positive note.”
And there are more subtle changes.
“In some of the arias, there’s a little bit more tension created by adding music that creates more conflict before there is actual resolution, say with Macbeth and the apparitions,” Burkot said. “That scene is fleshed out more. There is just a little bit more music.”
Burkot himself has pared out some repetitions and other things that don’t accelerate the plot.
“There’s more of a kind of speedy unfolding of exposition. It feels more like the progress of a play,” he said.
The opera’s libretto, by Francesco Maria Piave with additions by Andrea Maffei, pretty closely follows the Shakespeare, despite substituting a chorus of witches for the original’s three. Binder is focusing the staging more on human nature she sees in the opera version than the supernatural in the original Shakespeare in crafting Macbeth’s destiny.
“I feel that the music and the libretto lead to that interpretation,” she said by phone. “Macbeth gets a suggestion. How he ruminates and how he thinks about this suggestion, and how he sets the drama in motion are really what cause the arc of the story.
“The reason the opera is effective and great is the music supports this up and down, ebb and flow, of a man and a woman’s emotions, thought, and their trajectory.”
In staging opera, Binder looks first to the music. In preparing for “Macbeth,” she studied several recordings with different conductors. Finally, she met with Burkot at his home.
“Let’s play through the score and just give me your thoughts about the score and different passages,” she told him.
“That really helps me form ideas about the drama and the theatricality,” Binder said. “The music has to be the bedrock in building the drama.”
Having been an actor, Binder also looked to her original Folger Shakespeare Library script of the play.
“I reread that; I looked at history,” she said. “I did research and formed ideas about how I wanted to present the story and storytelling — but certainly the music is the number-one step.
“In the opera, unlike musical theater, the maestro is king,” Binder said. (Some of today’s opera directors don’t share this opinion!) “The maestro has the last word. For me, the most gratifying projects are a collaboration between me and the conductor.”
In choosing a concept, Binder read about the actual Scottish King Macbeth in the 11th century. She had to decide: Should it be a modern setting? Should it be in 1606 when the play premiered? Should it be in 1847 when the opera premiered?
Binder was inspired by discovering a pair of leather shoes she found in the Musée national du Moyen Âge, National Museum of the Middle Ages, in Paris.
“I couldn’t take my eyes off them,” she said. “Somebody in King Macbeth’s court, the real King Macbeth wore these shoes.”
That reminded her of Macbeth’s struggle to maintain power, the snowball effect, and the corruption that ensued.
“We’ve seen many instances of this in recent memory,” Binder said. “This is a story that is centuries old, and I thought, in order to tell a modern story, I’m going to take this all the way back to the 11th century.”
The idea for the setting came from a wintertime visit to Burkot’s home in New Hampshire in winter.
“The trees were all bare — they looked like spindly witches fingers,” Binder said. “I thought, the witches and Birnam Wood, is it nature or supernatural?
“What propels Macbeth is not the supernatural, but human nature,” she said. “I noticed how the trees looked a lot like the nervous system and the cardiovascular system. The trees, the witches, it looks like the veins within us.”
jim.lowe @timesargus.com / jim.lowe @rutlandherald.com