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June 08, 2010

Dresden has had its fill of Nazi Macbeths and Communist Macduffs and are glad to be shot of both: Brendan Simms goes to hear Verdi's Macbeth in Dresden

Posted by Brendan Simms

Giuseppe Verdi'sMacbeth
Semper Opera, Dresden
May 2010

Giuseppe Verdi's opera Macbeth was written in 1847, on the eve of the European Revolutions, and first performed in Florence. Its German premiere three years later was in the Saxon capital of Dresden, known as the Florence on the Elbe before it was destroyed by allied bombers during the Second World War. Germany has remained a centre of Verdi interpretation ever since and in 2005 Macbeth was performed again at the famous Dresden Semper Opera House; that version was revived there in May of this year.

It is an assured staging with an eclectic range of costumes. Macbeth himself is clad as something resembling a Chilean Admiral in the last century; his henchmen are dressed as middle managers clustering around the coffee machine; and the blood-streaked witches are like something out of a slasher movie. The moving chorus of the exiles is a little downbeat compared to versions I have heard, but the scene is cleverly staged. Instead of the usual ruffed noblemen, we are given a bedraggled crowd of refugees - many of them in tracksuits - in what could be an airport arrival hall or a holding centre. The overall impression of this Macbeth is a little bizarre, but not unpleasing.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most famous plays and it is easy to see why Verdi was drawn to the material, just as he composed famous operas of Falstaff and Othello. The story speaks to universal themes such as ambition, greed, guilt, and paranoia; there is little about love, though this staging does include some discreet couplings between the antihero and Lady Macbeth.

I suspect, though, that the real appeal of Macbeth to Verdi lay elsewhere. The themes of fate and destiny - strongly represented in the play - were something of an obsession for the composer, who counted "The force of destiny" among his works, and indeed for many Italians of his generation. The fate that concerned them most in the mid-nineteenth century was the Italian national cause. When Verdi's exiles sing of "Patria oppressa", the audience will have thought of Austrian bayonets not of the usurper's thugs.

In Macbeth, Verdi is also expressing an anxiety about the Risorgimento, the Italian national revival, which he strongly supported but many despaired of achieving. When Lady Macbeth questions whether her husband is evil enough to do the deed - "the path to power is full of crimes " - she was surely expressing Verdi's fear that Italians lacked the drive and ruthlessness to unify the peninsula.

But there is ambivalence too. The original deed not only cannot be reversed, it has to be repeated again and again. Having killed Duncan, Macbeth then has to dispose of his potential rival Banquo - should his children rule, as the witches have prophesied? Not satisfied, with that he seeks to kill Banquo's son, and then another potential rival, Macduff. His security, in other words, can only be achieved through the absolute insecurity of others. In this context, Verdi's new version of the opera in 1865 may have been intended as a reminder that while the deed of Italian unification might have been done, it required further acts - the expulsion of the Austrians from Venetia and the French from Rome - to make it complete.

The popularity of Verdi's opera in Germany is therefore not hard to explain. German culture, and especially nineteenth century romanticism, was also obsessed with the deed - Die Tat - and fate das Schicksal. When Macbeth was first performed in Dresden in 1850, Germany had just experienced the traumatic failure of an attempt to achieve national unity in the revolutions of 1848-1849.

One of the prominent casualties of the Saxon upheavals was Richard Wagner, who was forced to flee to Switzerland. Germans no less than Italians needed to be told to "screw their courage to the sticking point". This was also true when the 1865 version appeared: Bismarck had just bested the Danes over Schleswig Holstein but he still had to eject the Austrians from Germany and put the French in their places. Besides, on some readings, the united Germany after 1871 - at least after the death of Bismarck - resembled nothing so much as Macbeth himself: ambitious, restless and convinced that its survival depended on the suppression of its neighbours. Verdi, in other words, spoke to the collective German Unbehagen. That said, the woods which ultimately advanced on Germany in 1914-1918 were no less real than the camouflaged army that moved in on Macbeth in the final scenes.

If Macbeth is the antihero of the story, the hero is surely Macduff who liberates Scotland from the oppressor. In the Dresden version, however, he is treated with considerable scepticism. Towards the beginning, the witches perform a creepy lap-dance for Macbeth; at the end, they do the same for Macduff. The message is clear: one man in uniform has been supplanted by another, but has anything really changed. Even the costumes make this clear: Macbeth's army is clad in uniforms which resemble those of a 1980s South American junta; Macduff's men looked like Israelis, a look which in that context one can safely assume is not intended as complimentary.

This will surely have resonated with a Dresden audience, which in 1945 exchanged Hitler's dictatorship for the - admittedly much milder - dictatorship of Moscow sponsored Bolsheviks. They have had their fill of Nazi Macbeths and Communist Macduffs and are glad to be shot of both.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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