On the eve of the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s music director Riccardo Muti talks with CSO program annotator Phillip Huscher about “Macbeth” and Verdi’s other Shakespearean operas, the composer’s modernity, the influence of Wagner and why Verdi’s music will be with us forever.

Two seasons ago, you led Verdi’s Otello here in Chicago, a performance that has just been released on CD. Now you turn to Verdi’s Macbeth, the earliest of his three Shakespearean operas. Is there a common thread that links those two operas and Falstaff, the final work in the trio?

In the operas that come from Shakespeare — Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff — Verdi is able to make operas that are deeply philosophical, from the point of view of the message, much more accessible to us through the music. The music becomes a sort of river that takes us to the sea more easily.

Verdi always had a soft spot for Macbeth among all his works. What sets it apart?

Macbeth is completely different from all Verdi’s other operas, particularly regarding the dynamics that Verdi requests, not only for the orchestra, but also for the singers. He uses expressions such as suono muto — sound that doesn’t sound. And what is interesting is that, in some parts of the score, he writes suono muto and then afterwards he writes diminuendo — how can you have a diminuendo when already you are without sound? This means that he really had in his mind a concept of sound, for the voices and for the orchestra, that was extremely far ahead of its time — that was avant-garde.

Verdi was involved in every aspect of the first production of Macbeth in 1847. Why was he so particularly concerned about the casting of the singers?

First of all, for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Verdi didn’t want singers with beautiful voices, but with voices that could convey the tragic, aggressive and wild characters of the two leading roles. In fact, the first soprano proposed to Verdi was Eugenia Tadolini, who was a very famous singer at that time, and Verdi said no, Tadolini has too beautiful a voice for this part. Verdi wanted voices that could speak more than voices that could sing. And in the beginning, when the witches first appear, he wanted a sound that was completely new for that time. In this way, he was much more advanced in his thinking than other composers about how to use the voice. Macbeth follows the bel canto period of Bellini and Rossini, with its emphasis on beautiful singing. But Verdi goes in the opposite direction. It is as if he was anticipating stylistically the expressionism that we find in other forms of art. The concept of opera for Verdi was not only to sing well, but also to be dramatically involved and to create a character — to act and speak like actors and not as singers singing.

We know that Verdi prepared the singers with unusual care, even given his own exacting standards, before the premiere of Macbeth.

He worked very hard in particular on the duet for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, which is one of the most important scenes in the opera. Before the performance in the evening, Verdi called the baritone and the soprano to his room to rehearse the duet once again. The baritone said to Verdi: “But maestro, we have worked on this duet 46 times.” And Verdi said, “And this will be the 47th time.”

Verdi himself conducted the first performance of Macbeth in Florence.

When I was music director in Florence, I remember that I went down in the theater under the pit where the chair that Verdi used when he conducted the opera still sits.

How would you characterize the full-scale revision that Verdi made of Macbeth in 1865, which is the version you are conducting here?

The second version he made years later for Paris is much more refined. He added the ballet music and new arias, such as Lady Macbeth’s “La luce langue,” which is one of the greatest moments in the opera. Several times, Verdi had to write ballet music for his operas when they were performed in Paris, because in Paris, if an opera didn’t have a ballet, it was not a grand opera. And for Macbeth, he wrote very important ballet music. In the second version of Macbeth that we are doing, of course, we include the ballet music. Sometimes I have had to fight with stage directors who wanted to cut it, because they said they didn’t know what to do during the ballet.

It’s interesting that Verdi would choose to write his very last opera, Falstaff, which was premiered when he was 80 years old, on another Shakespearean subject. What sets Falstaff apart from Macbeth and Otello?

Verdi said from [his] first opera to Otello, [he] wrote for the public, and with Falstaff,  [he] wrote an opera for myself. And that makes a great difference. It’s clear that, with his last opera, Verdi says goodbye to the entire world, not only to the world of music. He’s not being cynical, he’s just realistic. He says, “I’ve had a long life, I’ve composed many operas, I’ve been criticized, I’ve been successful, I had many tragedies, I lost my wife, I lost my children — it has been a life rich in events of all kinds. But, in the end, with Falstaff, I say that ‘tutto nel mondo e burla’ — everything is a joke.”

This year is also the bicentennial of the birth of Wagner, who was one of the most influential figures in the history of music. But did he have any impact on Verdi?

It is interesting that many people say that Otello and Falstaff show the influence of Wagner on Verdi. I’ve been working on Verdi all my life, and at La Scala, I conducted six operas by Wagner. So I think I know quite enough to recognize any influence of Wagner on Verdi, and I can say that there is none at all. Actually, Verdi was always very critical of Wagner, even though when Wagner died, Verdi wrote that a great musician had disappeared and this was a great tragedy for the world of music. When Lohengrin was performed in Bologna, Verdi and [Arrigo] Boito went to see the opera. We still have the piano score that Verdi had in his hands as he followed the opera, with his annotations. One of Verdi’s most frequent comments was “too long, too long.”

For many years, Verdi’s music was not taken as seriously as that of other 19th-century composers. Do we still have much to learn about his music and his creative process?

When I visited his villa in Sant’Agata, where he lived most of his life, I remember that there was a huge package full of his manuscripts, including the first versions of many of his compositions. And on the box Verdi wrote that all of this was to be burned. Fortunately, the members of his family didn’t follow his instructions, and one day this box will be opened and we will understand the process that brought Verdi from the first idea to the final one.

Why does Verdi’s music continue to be so popular?

Verdi is like Mozart — he speaks to us about our sins, our defects, all our qualities. And he is not like Beethoven, who points his finger and judges — because Beethoven was always a moralist. But Verdi addresses all of us — from North America to South America, Australia, Japan, China. That’s the reason why I think that, in the future, Verdi will become even more universal than Wagner. Verdi’s music will be of great comfort for generations and generations to come, because he speaks to us like one man speaking to another person.

ABOVE: Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, led by Riccardo Muti (far right), performs Verdi’s “Macbeth” with guest soloists Tatiana Serjan (Lady Macbeth), Simge Buyukedes (Lady-in-Waiting), Luca Salsi (Macbeth), Francesco Meli (Macduff) and Antonello Ceron (Malcolm).  |  Todd Rosenberg Photography