Shakespeare400: Lady Macbeth - the Ultimate Femme Fatale
On Friday 26 February, as part of our Shakspeare400 festival, we will perform Strauss’s symphonic poem based on Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy, Macbeth. In preparation, we have had a look at Strauss’s music and in particular, explored the influence of the infamous femme fatale herself, Lady Macbeth, to understand how she is characterized by, and dominates Strauss’s musical score.
You would only need to turn to any classic Bond movie in order to understand the essential power of the femme fatale role. Countless actresses have graced our screens faced opposite the leading hero, using their beauty, charm and seduction in a bid to distract and overpower the ‘good’ of 007.
The femme fatale has been a frequently reoccurring literary figure for centuries, flourishing in the Romantic texts of writers such as Keats, Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe. This soon paved the way for their appearance on the late 19th- and 20th-century operatic stage. From the Spanish seductress, Carmen, to the exotic enchantress, Turandot, and even more recently to real modern-day characters such as Anna Nicole Smith, the true power of the operatic femme fatales can be exaggerated visually on the stage. Bright-coloured clothing, entrancing dances, and hypnotic singing voices not only draw in the characters that surround them in the operatic plot, but we too, as the audience, are drawn into to their captivating feminine allure.
But instead of writing Macbeth as an opera, Strauss chose to adapt the play as a symphonic psychodrama – using only music to evoke the dark mood, setting and characters of Shakespeare’s plot. Strauss’s Macbeth was written between 1886-88 and the composer conducted the first performance himself in Weimar, October 1890. It is crucial to note that Strauss’s version of Shakespeare’s play strips the plot to its bare minimum, avoiding the characterisation of the witches as well as other surrounding characters and focuses primarily on the characterisation of the Macbeth and his wife.
So without the support of the visual elements as recognized in opera, how does Strauss create the impression of Lady Macbeth as the all-powerful femme fatale using only music? Like the original play, Strauss emphasises that it is Lady Macbeth that is the more ambitious and relentless of the couple. Strauss creates two noticeable themes for Lady Macbeth. Printed on the score on top of the first theme, Strauss quotes directly from Shakespeare’s original script: ’that I may pour my spirits in thine ear‘. Strauss uses Lady Macbeth’s music to reflect her powers of persuasion: smooth melodic contours, sweet strings, glissandi flutes and major/minor shifts all help to create an overall musical impression of Lady Macbeth ‘pouring her spirits’ into her husband’s ear in order to convince her husband to fulfil his ‘prophecies’ by killing the king, and assuming power and control for himself, and for her.
Lady Macbeth’s second theme, which comes later in the piece, is far more aggressive: repetitive stabbing chords and anxious outbursts suggest the insistent nature of the femme fatale as both the Macbeths sink into tyrannical, murderous behaviour in their desperate attempt to hold on to their authority.
Strauss’s score for Macbeth is relentless – never truly rising from an overwhelmingly doomed, gloomy atmosphere. But isn’t that what a tragedy is truly about? Amidst the doom, gloom and uncertain atmosphere, as Macbeth struggles to remain in control of both the crown as well as his own mental state, it is Lady Macbeth that clearly wears the trousers in their relationship, and it is she who keeps her husband under an incredibly firm thumb. Despite not having the assistance of visual stimuli to help our understanding of her abilities, as used on the opera stage, Strauss unquestionably exploits her musical themes to truly portray Lady Macbeth’s powers of persuasion as the ultimate femme fatale.
Generals Macbeth and Banquo encounter three witches who prophesise that Macbeth will be made thane (a rank of Scottish nobility) of Cawdor and eventually King of Scotland, and that Banquo, will produce a line of Scottish kings, although he will never be king himself. The witches vanish, and Macbeth and Banquo treat their prophecies sceptically until Macbeth is swiftly named thane of Cawdor. Macbeth is intrigued by the possibility the prophecy might be true.
Lady Macbeth desires the kingship for her husband and wants him to murder King Duncan in order to obtain it. While Duncan is asleep, Macbeth stabs him and easily assumes the kingship. Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Donalbain flee, fearing that whoever killed Duncan will kill them as well.
Fearful of the witches’ prophecy that Banquo’s heirs will seize the throne, Macbeth hires a group of murderers to kill Banquo and his son Fleance. They manage to kill Banquo, but fail to kill Fleance who escapes. Macbeth becomes furious: as long as Fleance is alive, he fears that his power remains insecure. Macbeth visits the witches who show him further prophecies: he must beware of Macduff, a Scottish nobleman who opposed Macbeth’s accession to the throne. When he learns that Macduff has fled to England to join Malcolm, Macbeth orders that Macduff’s castle be seized.
In England, Macduff vows for revenge, and Prince Malcolm, Duncan’s son, has succeeded in raising an army. Macduff joins the Prince to challenge Macbeth. Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth becomes plagued with sleepwalking and later kills herself.
Despite being devastated by his wife’s death, Macbeth waits for battle, believing he is invincible. In the battle, Macbeth encounters the vengeful Macduff who is triumphant in killing Macbeth and Malcolm is crowned the King of Scotland.
Don’t miss our performance of Strauss’s Macbeth on Friday 26 February, as well as another Shakespearean work, Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Principal Guest Conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducts here alongside Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto and Stravinsky’s luminous ballet score to The Firebird.
Also on the day: Don’t miss our pre-concert event at 6.00pm as Dr Lucy Munro, Lecturer in Shakespeare at King’s College, London, places Strauss’s Overture in the context of the history of spectacular theatrical productions of Macbeth in the late 19th century.