“Una macchia è qui tuttora”
from Verdi’s Macbeth
with Anna Netrebko
[Phone dialing number, ringing and being answered]
DAME JUDI: Hello?
DAME JUDI: Hello.
GIDDENS: Hi. Would this perhaps be Dame Judi Dench that I'm talking to?
DAME JUDI: It is.
GIDDENS: Nice to meet you... well over the phone, anyway.
DAME JUDI: And you.
GIDDENS: Well, thank you so much for taking the time. I'm very excited to get to talk to you. My name is Rhiannon, and I host a podcast on opera called Aria Code. For every episode we focus on one aria, and we're focusing on Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene.
DAME JUDI : Right.
GIDDENS: And you know, you know a little bit about Lady Macbeth and…
DAME JUDI: I know a bit about her. I know a bit about her. I played her twice.
GIDDENS: I’ve seen a clip of you doing the sleepwalking scene, and I would guess it's the Royal Shakespeare Company version ?
DAME JUDI: Shakespeare Company
GIDDENS: It's an absolutely stunning scene, and your intensity in that scene is just so deep. So it's just like, how do you start with Lady Macbeth? Where you go with her?
DAME JUDI: It's usually kind of agreed that she's a monster of some kind. I didn't think that was so, and I planned that I would make her somebody who's so absolutely mad about her husband, that that if he was promised something and wanted it then she would do everything in her power to make it happen. I think her ambition is entirely for him. There are some people who live through somebody they love. I mean, that’s the only way I could find to play her.
DAME JUDI: So there are many reasons to play her as a villain but my overall vision is not to excuse her in any way or her behavior.
DAME JUDI: But just, I mean that you know, great love can drive you insane.
[End of call]
[Theme music starts]
GIDDENS: From WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera, this is Aria Code. I’m Rhiannon Giddens.
Now that we’re starting up a new season, I’ve been thinking about what makes great arias so powerful, and I think a big part of it is that they tap into our strongest emotions. One of the emotions that comes up over and over again in opera… and in life... is desire -- that feeling deep in your gut of just really wanting something.
For the next ten episodes, every aria we explore will show us one facet of desire. And I’m not just talking about sex, you know? I’m talking about the things we want the most. Like... hope for a better future. Like wanting to get the spark back in your marriage. Wanting your children to be safe and free. You know… basically, the things that get you out of bed every morning.
And then there’s ambition. And ambition is a very complicated kind of desire. On the one hand, it’s a good thing, right, I mean you’ve gotta have some sort of drive to get you through life. But when you get obsessed with it, when you get obsessed with power, status, money… whatever it is... it can turn dark really, really fast. And that’s what happens in Macbeth.
So here’s a quick rundown, and look, even if you slept through high school English, if you’ve seen Game of Thrones or House of Cards, you’ll catch on real quick.
Now it all starts with a prophecy.
Three witches tell Macbeth that he’s going to be king... someday. His wife, Lady Macbeth, convinces him to fast track it by killing King Duncan… oh, and he does. It’s super bloody. And then, to secure the crown, the Macbeths hire assassins to kill the army general, Banquo. And then, since they’re on a roll, they off the wife and kids of the Thane of Fife. (His friends call him Macduff.) Is this clear?
So Lady Macbeth is the driving force behind this epic bloodbath. She goads her husband the whole way and seemingly without any remorse. But it all finally catches up with her in the sleepwalking scene. It turns out that she has a conscience after all, and her guilt comes spilling out in this aria, “Una macchia è qui tuttora,” which refers to that spot of blood she just can’t get off her hands. And if you’ve ever heard the phrase, “Out damn spot,” now you know where it comes from. Throughout the scene, she relives all of her crimes in a sort of eerie dream state. And then she walks offstage, never to be seen again. The next thing we hear is that she’s dead.
There’s a lot going on here, so I’ve invited three really smart folks to help unpack it. First, a certain soprano you may have heard of...
NETREBKO: Anna Netrebko, singing role of Lady Macbeth. Somehow I understanding her, and I don't even need to act. I'm just being by myself, and to I don't know... easy.
GIDDENS: Next up...
GIDDENS: Anne Midgette,
GIDDENS: ...the classical music critic at The Washington Post. She used to study singing, but now she only performs in small, intimate venues...
MIDGETTE: I moved my singing largely to the shower. And not long ago at all, I was caught red-handed delivering the sleepwalking scene at some volume by my husband who had come home to pick something up and discovered Lady Macbeth in the room.
GIDDENS: And Tana Wojczuk has had her own sleepwalking scenes…
WOJCZUK: I could not go on sleepovers as a kid because I would really freak out my friends. I'd sit up in bed with my eyes open, screaming and definitely would get up and walk around sometimes.
GIDDENS: In her waking life, she’s a writer and writing teacher at NYU, and she has a special place in her heart for Shakespeare.
And here they all are, decoding the sleepwalking scene from Verdi’s Macbeth.
MIDGETTE: Verdi has a magnificent dramatic sensibility, and he was also a very astute portrayer of women. Shakespeare was a touchstone for him, and Lady Macbeth is a particularly interesting figure.
NETREBKO: Well, it’s cool to feel that you can play Shakespeare, especially one of his strongest characters. I mean, as an actress, for me, it’s very interesting to interpretate [speaking with an accent] this complicated soul.
MIDGETTE: The journey that she traverses dramatically and also vocally from her first aria, which is a big coloratura showpiece and hard to sing, to the sleepwalking scene, which is this kind of a foggy, dramatic monologue dreamworld, is a remarkable depiction of a human sort of breakdown. You can hear something big has happened to this character.
WOJCZUK: The beginning of the play has Macbeth away at war. And when we see Lady Macbeth, she's alone in the castle, and my sense of her is that she's been taking care of everything. And when her husband comes home -- you know as many women who have gone into the workplace during a war, and then the men come home, and they have to go back into the home -- she's sort of shoved back into this domestic space that she's too big for, like Alice in Wonderland.
And it's just really interesting to see how this thwarted female ambition in the play destroys her and everyone around her, but also the sort of excitement of seeing this powerful, ambitious woman who's willing to do anything.
NETREBKO: She's a strong woman. She's a leader. She's a queen.
MIDGETTE: She wants action. She wants power. She wants more out of life than Macbeth was giving her, and sort of married to this well-meaning but kind of nebbishy guy and trying to spark him on. There’s a kind of frustrated, creative drive in her that’s coming out.
NETREBKO: She is the one who wants to have a power... the one who needs to have a power… just in a little bit the wrong way.
WOJCZUK: Our modern version of Lady Macbeth has a sort of secret history, and it starts in sort of the mid-nineteenth century around 1834, and previously, the role had been played very feminine, very seductive. Someone who really got Macbeth to do what she wanted through sex.
NETREBKO: Yeah, she’s very sexual… Yeah, why not? I mean, everything is driving you, and sex too.
WOJCZUK: And then along came this 19-year-old American actress named Charlotte Cushman. And her first role that she was given was Lady Macbeth, which was really a big deal. And so she wanted to do something new with it. She couldn't play the seductress because she looked very masculine. She was tall and strong and had very exaggerated features and a really gravelly voice.
And so she played Lady Macbeth as a bully… as a powerful force of nature. One critic wrote that he was afraid Lady Macbeth was gonna hit him… But it was a huge hit; people loved it. And it's a little bit ironic because Cushman herself was extremely ambitious at a time when there was very little for her to do with that ambition.
This was a time when women were agitating for the vote or to even be able to keep their own income when they got married. And Cushman really took advantage of the fear of ambitious women and of the idea that women's ambition would actually turn to madness, which a lot of people did believe.
MIDGETTE: Shakespeare's play has a very sort of basic construct of ambitious people meeting with downfall. Just how ambitious she is -- that's not open to question. Her ambition is all-consuming.
NETREBKO: She had so much drive to this crown to the, you know, power.
MIDGETTE: Certainly, she is the power behind the throne, and certainly she is constantly driving her husband to do what he does.
WOJCZUK: She’s quick, she’s strategic. She instantly starts to figure out how to put this plan into action.
NETREBKO: She thinks that everything is easy, everything -- at that point.
MIDGETTE: So we're in Macbeth's castle, which is in sort of wee hours of the morning silence waiting for the doom that's advancing on it.
WOJCZUK: Lady Macbeth walks onto the dark stage in her nightdress...
NETREBKO: She's walking with the lamp because she's afraid to sleep in the dark. [chuckles]
WOJCZUK: And we have the doctor and nurse who are watching her.
NETREBKO: ...and she's always trying to clean her arms...
MIDGETTE: The doctor says, “Why is she rubbing her hands?” And the serving woman says she believes she's washing them…
WOJCZUK: ...and they're telling us this is weird. She's never done this before, and now she's sleepwalking. What's going on? And then we hear Lady Macbeth in monologue for most of the scene.
NETREBKO: She's kind of whispering... whispering, and trying to clean her arm. Trying to get rid of it and very aggressively. And this situation of not sleeping and not finding the peace even in the sleep is like endless nightmare. It's make her exhausted, physically, and mentally.
MIDGETTE: Sleepwalking was very in vogue in the 19th century. And this idea that you reveal in your sleep the truth that you're trying to hide when you're awake is almost archetypal, a trope that reappears in plays and fiction -- this idea that you can't hide your crimes because something will give you away. You yourself will give you away.
WOJCZUK: We know now if you look at neuroscience that sleepwalking is the breakdown of the normal fail-safes in the brain that keep our body from doing things while we are asleep and dreaming. And it’s a good illustration of what's happening to Lady Macbeth is that her fail-safes have all broken down and she is no longer in control. Her subconscious and her soul are troubled. So it becomes a much more sort of cry from the heart, and we feel for her.
MIDGETTE: Much of the aria is done in a kind of suffocated voice. It's always a little bit quiet, and the orchestra underneath is doing this very neurotic sort of driven de de de de de de de de de, and then it kind of groans, doo doo. And that’s where the “Out damn spot, out I say” begins. In Italian, “Una macchia è qui tuttora.”
NETREBKO: Bubba bup bup bup bup bup, duuuuh duh. It's horrible. If you imagine her walking in a Scottish castle; it is scary. No, no, I don't want to see that.
MIDGETTE: Verdi specified that she should not have too beautiful a voice. He wanted kind of an ugly sound, which is also unique in opera, it's all about trying to make a beautiful voice. The idea that the composer himself is taking a deliberate step away from so-called the bel canto, beautiful singing, to something that would achieve a dramatic end is a point that many people focus on about this role.
NETREBKO: I heard many times they say “Okay, the voice has to be not beautiful, and it has to be some weird sounds.” Yes. It does. It has to be. The performer has to have plenty of variations of the color from the haunting voice to the almost screaming. And therefore, I changing my voice a lot here and adding some very unpleasant sound even a little bit vulgar sound because without that, the character will be not complete. It has to show all this horror of the situation. The voice have to be scary.
WOJCZUK: So I think Lady Macbeth can best be understood when we think about her in terms of the grand sweep of politics, and women in politics. She is someone who wants to do great things in the world, big things. She wants to change the course of history. She wants to rule. She doesn't just want to have power through her husband.
MIDGETTE: We see that with women running for office over and over again. The whole Hillary Clinton figure of a woman who had her own ambitions and worked with her husband and then broke out and went on to achieve things of her own and couldn't be allowed to succeed. The figure of a powerful woman is a difficult figure for our society to wrap its collective mind around.
WOJCZUK: There’s a theory called the “King's Two Bodies,” which is that the king must be the ruler of the people and the caretaker of the people -- both a father figure and a mother figure. But guess what? When a woman is a ruler of the people, she is not feminine enough, and when she is too maternal, she's too soft. And if you level this at a woman, there’s very little she can do about it. So in fact, she can't partake of the King's Two Bodies at all. She can only be a Lady Macbeth.
MIDGETTE: So in the first section, she's reliving the murder of the king, Duncan, which is the first misdeed that sets all of their crimes in action.
NETREBKO: And she is insulting Macbeth: "You, who are you, you afraid? Get out, go! I told you, go!” This is -- has to be very nasty.
WOJCZUK: Then she stops, and she reflects, and she says, "Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?"
NETREBKO: It's so much blood and so much killing around. Who could imagine that?
MIDGETTE: Who could have imagined so much blood? And which she repeats a couple of times in the Italian, "Tanto sangue imaginar, imaginar." That blood is sort of the underpinning of the entire aria. It keeps coming back. I can’t get my hands clean!
NETREBKO: When I was preparing the role I wanted to go... I wanted to go in the place where when they're killing the animals and feel what it's means, so much blood. I went to see the sacrifice of the lambs, and I know it's different thing, but I wanted to experience that. I saw everything. I saw it. Um, no, I wasn't scared, but it's personally me, you know, I'm not afraid of all the blood. But of course to kill somebody, to kill person probably this is a little different. This I cannot tell you because I did not experience that and hopefully never! I just can't imagine.
MIDGETTE: At the end of each sort of dream episode Lady Macbeth comes to kind of a pause and that pause is generally punctuated by the doctor and serving woman coming in saying, "What did she say?" or, "Oh terror." And then the orchestra will kind of change direction a little bit. So for example when she finishes the episode with Duncan then the orchestra kind of shifts into a longer limbed accompaniment and that's when she begins singing about the Thane of Fife, Macduff.
She says, wasn’t the Thane of Fife a husband and a father? From which the doctor and the servant woman correctly infer that she has had the wife and children killed. And their cries of, "O terror..." ...are kind of further punctuation along with that obsessive orchestra, driving home these points that Lady Macbeth is sort of dropping like pebbles out of her mouth.
NETREBKO: Her mood is changing completely to desperation. It's really horrible. "Con dolore," with the pain.
MIDGETTE: She goes on from there to say, "All the all the oils of Araby will never wash clean this little hand.”
NETREBKO: Nothing can take away this blood. These hands ever will be clean?
MIDGETTE: Washing out the blood is her main focus at this moment. Going up into this very wistful sort of crescendo.
WOJCZUK: Blood has a smell, and I think in the moment where she says, "All Arabia is not able to cleanse the little hand with its balsams, cleanse doesn't necessarily mean "clean off," only, it also means like purify. And certainly in Shakespeare's time they didn't do much bathing. But what they did do is perfume themselves to rid themselves of smell and Arabia is where all the perfumes came from. So it's this idea of being able to mask the stench of the blood and therefore make it go away.
MIDGETTE: And then she's urging her husband to get his nightgown on and go to bed.
NETREBKO: The voice and the instruments in the orchestra are blending together. They're going after each other. They're hunting each other, they're helping each other.
MIDGETTE: And then she pours out that Banquo can't climb out of his grave.
NETREBKO: "Banco è spento, e dalla fossa." It's very heavy. It's very dramatic and it has to have a full power. There is no time to rest.
WOJCZUK: And she does say over and over, "Banquo is dead. Those who died arise not again."
WOJCZUK: But she's really saying it because she knows that's not the case. She knows that she's always going to be haunted by these ghosts.
MIDGETTE: I really love the phrase, what’s done cannot be undone… "Sfar non puoi, la cosa fatta." It's a beautiful phrase and it's actually kind of hard to sing because it's goes up only to a G but it's got to be sort of all in one breath and that sums up the whole aria, the sort of sheer beauty of that moment coming out of all of the murk of her thoughts and her confusion, all of the good that might have been, you know, and the ways that things that have happened can't be changed. Is for me very powerful and contextualizes all the regret that she's only half uttering for the rest of it.
NETREBKO: This sleepwalking scene is shows us how far this torture could come to the human mind and human soul. So she completely destroyed, she's done, she's finished by grief, by this horror, by guilt, but she hasn't so… she broke… she broke.
MIDGETTE: Normal usage in the 19th century would have been to end a mad scene with a cabaletta, which is a flurry of interpolated vocal ornament, lots of rapid notes, often going very high and low, up and down the scale. Verdi doesn't really leave room for that kind of dramatic interpolation. But he does send her up to the high notes in the ornamentation when she's saying, "Come on, Macbeth. Come on." It's a very quiet climax.
Everything kind of fades away. And then she comes back down and gives her final gesture again up to the high D-flat with a little thread of voice as she says, “come, andiamo.” And that’s her final word of the aria as she walks out, is “come,” andiam.
NETREBKO: The last note it's I mean, it's piano. I'm for that. I'm changing completely, my voice, and my approach. I'm putting the whole phrase in the completely different place. That's how I able to reach that high note. It's a hell; it's a hell to do. It's really, really hard. I mean that's needs a lot of practice. But yeah. I mean, I do what I have to do.
GIDDENS: That was soprano Anna Netrebko, music critic Anne Midgette, and writer Tana Wojczuk decoding the sleepwalking scene from Verdi’s Macbeth. You’ll hear Anna sing the whole thing after the break.
GIDDENS: And now, Anna Netrebko sings “Una macchia è qui tuttora,” onstage at the Metropolitan Opera.
[Anna Netrebko sings “Una macchia è qui tuttora”]
GIDDENS: Wow… Anna Netrebko sleepwalking right out of the story of Macbeth.
Well, that’s it for this episode of Aria Code. If you like it, it’s really helpful if you can tell some of your friends or leave a review at Apple Podcasts.
Aria Code is a co-production of WQXR and The Metropolitan Opera. The show is produced and scored by Merrin Lazyan. Emily Lang is our associate producer, Brendan Francis Newnam of Public Address Media is our editor, and Matt Abramovitz is our Executive Producer. Sound design and mixing by Matt Boynton, and original music by Hannis Brown.
And special thanks to Dame Judi Dench for her insights into Lady Macbeth. I want you guys to know that I managed to fangirl not one time during that whole conversation, even though I really really wanted to. Well, I’m Rhiannon Giddens and see you next time.
[Judi Dench phone call]
GIDDENS: I have to know, are you an opera fan at all?
DAME JUDI: I am an opera fan, I have been an opera fan for a long time. But do you know I’ve never seen Macbeth?
GIDDENS: Oh have you not?
DAME JUDI: I’ve never seen the opera, isn't that shameful?
GIDDENS: Well I don’t think it's shameful. It just means it’s something…
DAME JUDI: Well I do!
GIDDENS: Oh ok!
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