Giuseppe Verdi appreciated great literature. He was a voracious reader who found inspiration in the works of contemporary writers as well as those from the past.
Verdi counted among his favorite authors William Shakespeare, of whom he once wrote, "He is one of my very special poets … I read and reread him continually." In fact, Verdi admired Shakespeare's plays so much that he used them as the basis for three of his operas.
The first of these Shakespeare works is "Macbeth," which premiered in 1847 and is from the same period as "Nabucco" and "Ernani." (Some 40 years later, Verdi would return to Shakespeare for "Otello" and "Falstaff," which is loosely based on "The Merry Wives of Windsor.")
After an absence of 15 years, Utah Opera is bringing "Macbeth" back to the Capitol Theatre starting this Saturday.
Conductor Joseph Rescigno, who was last seen in Salt Lake City conducting Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca," believes "Macbeth" is Verdi's first true masterpiece.
"This is his first great opera," he told the Deseret News. "It's his first unique opera where he breaks away from the bel canto tradition."
The influences of Berlioz and Beethoven are clearly discernible, Rescigno said. "You can hear Berlioz in the witches and sleepwalking scenes and Beethoven in the rhythms."
Rescigno met with the Deseret News recently in the Utah Opera Production Studios to talk about "Macbeth." Also taking part in the discussion were stage director Stephanie Sundine, soprano Brenda Harris and baritone Louis Otey.
"Macbeth" has been one of the few Verdi operas (if one doesn't include the very early works) that isn't performed as often as it deserves. It's occasionally staged, but performances are rare.
"It's a big piece," Sundine said. "There are a lot of special effects, and it has a big chorus with a lot of quick costume changes. Utah Opera makes it look like the problems with it are easily solved, but it's a challenge."
Sundine added that directing it also poses a number of problems. "You have to pay a lot of attention to details in the set, costumes, props and lighting, but it's totally worth it."
The set is from New Orleans Opera, which Sundine is familiar with. "I've directed it with this set before. It's a unit set with not a lot of props." And with all the scene changes that the story demands, this set allows the action to flow. "You can concentrate on the drama and emotion," she added.
Looking at it from the conductor's perspective "Macbeth" is easy, if one understands it, Rescigno said. "It's fabulous to conduct, but you have to understand the layers and colors in the score. It gives you a chance to be creative."
In recent years "Macbeth," which was one of the composer's favorite works, has enjoyed a revival of sorts. "It still isn't done very often, but it's done more now than it used to be," Rescigno said. "That's because the plot is tight, the story is timeless and the music is great."
Both Harris and Otey agree with Rescigno's assessment.
"This opera rocks," Harris said. "I just love it."
Harris, who sings Lady Macbeth, enjoys her role. "Lady Macbeth is such a strong person. She bursts in and explodes into the role. It's a big sing, and that's what I like."
Unlike the female leads in other operas, Lady Macbeth doesn't start out delicately, Harris said. "She isn't young and innocent when you first meet her. She isn't a character who becomes strong. She undergoes a journey just like the women in 'Traviata,' 'Trovatore' and 'Rigoletto,' but it's a journey of a different kind. It's a journey into madness."
At the end, one sees a different woman. "In her huge final aria, during her sleepwalking scene, she becomes fragile," Harris said.
To make the story work, Otey, who takes on the title role, believes Macbeth must be every bit as ambitious and ruthless as his wife. Too often he's portrayed as weak and indecisive. "That's not true," he said. "We find out he's brave and a great warrior who is beloved by all people and who loves the king. But he has a fatal flaw. He's superstitious and has premonitions of something he's dreamed of."
That something is to replace Duncan as king of Scotland. "Macbeth is all ready to do what needs to be done," Otey said, but he can't bring himself to kill Duncan. "Not until Lady Macbeth flips the switch and removes the moral barrier for him to commit murder."
And that is Macbeth's downfall. "He faces his moral culpability and is horrified by all the bloodshed and death his murderous act has caused. But Lady Macbeth doesn't face it, and she goes insane."
Utah Opera will stage Verdi's revised 1865 version of "Macbeth" but with the original ending, which according to Rescigno works very well. "The revised version is tighter, but the original ending is musically superior."
Resigno said that this "Macbeth" should be "rather special" because of the cast. "It's a great cast, and there is no one better right now to sing Lady Macbeth than Brenda. It's vocally very hard, but her voice has the power and beauty to do it justice."
IF YOU GO …
What: "Macbeth," Utah Opera
Where: Capitol Theatre
When: Oct. 17, 19, 21, 23, 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 25, 2 p.m.
How much: $13-$72
Phone: 801-355-2787 or 888-451-2787
Also: Opera preview lecture by Thomas Cimarusti of Texas Tech University, fourth floor meeting room, Salt Lake City Library, Oct. 14, 7 p.m., free
Also: Question-and-answer session with Utah Opera artistic director Christopher McBeth, Founders Room, Capitol Theatre, immediately following each performance, free
e-mail: [email protected]