Duets and Don’ts

Each student will need a photocopy of the printed resources for the activity, found here.

Early in the opera, messengers arrive to announce that, true to the witches’ prophecy, Macbeth will be king. Commentators have noted that the conventional thing for Verdi to do here would be to provide Macbeth with a so-called “double aria”—the first part slow, the second part upbeat and rhythmic. Instead, in Track 19, he plays Macbeth and Banquo off each other.

Macbeth is hesitant, pensive. He stretches his words. His music is full of dark tones. He responds to the prophecy of kingship with ambivalence in both lyric and melody: “Ma perchè sento rizzarmi il crine?”—why does my hair stand on end? It’s Banquo who joins in, jaunty, confident and, it would seem, misreading Macbeth entirely. “O,” sings Banquo, “come s’empie costui d’orgoglio”—how [Macbeth] is filled with pride!

So there is conflict in words as well as music, and Verdi ratchets it up. Macbeth and Banquo continue to sing at cross-purposes, first interrupting one another, then literally singing different notions at the same time. By the end, the messengers themselves have joined in (They seem to read Macbeth better than his pal Banquo: “perchè l’aspetto non serenò?”—why doesn’t this news make him happy?). With these three parts, each in a different mood, none paying attention to its partners, Verdi turns the crucial announcement into an appropriately grand ball of confusion.

By contrast, near the end of the opera, Malcolm and Macduff come together after the final battle. In Track 20 we hear the two sing in perfect harmony—again, both in lyric and melody. “S’affidiognun al re,” sings Macduff—let everyone trust the king—as Malcolm sings “Confida, o Scozia, in me”—trust me, Scotland! Then Macduff’s “Pace e gloria” [peace and glory] is simultaneous to Malcolm’s “Vittoria” [victory]. The music embodies the unifying triumph they feel. It’s not hard for students to recognize how Verdi shapes these two duets differently to convey dramatically different states of mind and of affairs.