The Sorcerers of Verdi and Purcell


Purcell's Opera and Prelude

The story of Aeneas and Dido, the Queen of Carthage, is told in the work of Roman/Latin poet Virgil called “Aeneis”. Aeneas is the son of King Anchises and Aphrodite, and he leads the Trojan people in search of a new home after the Trojan War. The surviving warriors depart from the city of “Antandos” - present day Altınoluk - located south of Mount Ida, and the wind carries them to Carthage. This is where Henry Purcell's 1689 opera begins. The first representation of the work took place at the Josias Priest Boarding School for Girls, a private girls' school in Chelsea, London. The Turkish premiere of the work was realized in 1995 by the Istanbul Baroque (Ensemble) under the direction of Leyla Pınar.

Among the features of the work is that it is Henry Purcell's first "real" opera. No speech sounds are used from the beginning to the end of the piece. The piece was written in English and is one of the important operas of the Baroque period. The libretto was written by Nahum Tate. Since I will examine only one part of the work, I found it appropriate to give information about the general outlines first.


Scene I: “Palace of Carthage”

Belinda (soprano) is the bridesmaid of Dido (soprano), Queen of Carthage, trying to make Dido look a little more cheerful and good. Belinda argues that this sadness of the Queen is due to Aeneas, whose ship was blown to the shores of Carthage, and that this sadness will pass when the two of them get married. Then Aeneas (tenor or baritone) enters the stage. Although he was angry at first, Dido later accepted Aeneas' marriage proposal.

Scene II: "The Cave of the Sorceress (Queen of the Sorceress)"

A magician (mezzo-soprano) conspired to destroy Carthage and its queen.

The choir of mages welcomes this plot and the expected result, happily and laughing, and the cave is filled with their terrible laughter. According to the plan, one of the sorcerer's servants, the god, will tell him that Jupiter sent him, and, in the guise of Mercury, he will persuade Aeneas to leave Carthage, this will mourn Dido and Dido end her life.


“The Grove”

Dido and Aeneas went on a scavenger hunt. They continue to hunt until the terrible storm of the sorcerers. Due to this storm, Aeneas is dragged towards the palace, and Mercury (tenor) appears to him through imitation from the spirit of the sorcerer's servants. Fearing the wrath of the gods, Aeneas accepted what Jupiter said to Mercury, who told him he had to go back to Troy, and immediately left the stage to make preparations to leave Carthage. Meanwhile, he is thinking about how to calm Dido.


“Port of Carthage”

While the Trojan ships are preparing to return, the sailors begin to sing a song (tenor) promising to return and visit Carthage. The queen begins to sing a solo aria about Aeneas' death at sea in the second part of her plan.


Dido and Belinda enter the stage. They were very surprised that Aeneas was gone. Dido is exhausted and Belinda struggles to make him feel good.

Later, Aeneas comes back, Dido says that he thinks he has lost him and that he is very afraid. When Aeneas explains what happened, Dido says that Aeneas' reasons for abandoning himself are not true.

Although Aeneas said that he did not obey the orders of the gods and agreed to stay with Dido, Dido says that even the thought of Aeneas leaving him upsets him and explains that it is impossible for them to be together anymore; She does not accept his decision and asks him to move away from her.

Thus, Dido explains what she will do after forcing Aeneas to leave, with an aria called "Dido's Lament". (Death Must Come When He is Gone.) Dido stabs himself and leaves life.

Giuseppe Verdi's Opera Macbeth

William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth, completed in 1607, became Giuseppe Verdi's 11th Opera with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and was first staged in Florence on 14 March 1847. Although the work is one of the important youth works of Giuseppe Verdi, it also achieved a good success. The country where the work takes place in the 11th century is Scotland. General Macbeth, following the witches' prophecy, kills the king with the help of his wife Lady Macbeth and takes the throne. Of course, that's not all, and the supporters of the late king vow to take revenge on the new king, Macbeth.

Macbeth decides to destroy everything in the prophecy in order not to leave his throne. In Act 4, Macbeth, who was killed by the son of the late king, sings the famous baritone aria “Perfidi… Pieta, rispetto, amore… Mal perme” (Treachery… Mercy, respect and love)

Giving the leading role to a baritone, not a tenor; Verdi brought many innovations to the opera in this work by making the villains the hero of the work, and not a single love story in the work, but by treating the subjects such as the ambition to rise and the restlessness of conscience.

Witches in Macbeth Opera

The role of witches in Macbeth, which is perhaps Shakespeare's most important work to supernatural characters, is very important in the work. Witch scenes in his period were not well suited to Shakespeare, and it was even believed that these additions were made by Thomas Middleton.

Shakespeare and one of this author's most famous plays was called "The Witch". Middleton's play was well received by the public, as supernatural creatures were an intriguing and almost tangible reality to Elizabethan audiences. Seeing the success of The Witch, Shakespeare's troupe, which also staged Middleton's works, had given this author the task of giving a new and more attractive flavor to Macbeth by working on the subject of witches a little more. Some similarities between The Witch and Macbeth's witch scenes also support this view.

Considering that witches can be considered as the main characters of this play, they play an important role in the development of the tragedy. Macbeth would not have realized that there were ambitions and desires hidden in his own subconscious were it not for these witches who appeared before him among the thunders at the very beginning of the game and prophesied about the future. This tragedy would not have had the same effect had he killed King Duncan without the witches and their prophecies. Shakespeare added the characters of witches to the play, giving it a mysterious, far from ordinary state.


Scene I: “Break a Heather”

A group of witches gather wood at the edge of a battlefield. The victorious generals, Macbeth and Banco, enter the scene. The witches say that Macbeth will become the lord of Glamis, the lord of Cavdor, and the next king. He depicts Banco as the founder of the dynasty of kings that will emerge in the future. Messengers from the king bring word that Macbeth has been given the Lordship of Cavdor.

Scene II: "Macbeth's Castle" 

Lady Macbeth is reading a letter from her husband about her encounter with witch women. Lady Macbeth will do anything to bring her husband, Macbeth, to the Scottish throne. Lady Macbeth is informed that Duncan, King of Scots, is coming to stay at her castle. He decides to have the king killed that evening. The king and his nobles arrive. General Macbeth thinks he's confident enough to commit the murder, but then changes his terrifying mind. Lady Macbeth is the person who will commit the murder. To accuse the king's guards, he smears Duncan's blood on them and hides the murder weapon, Macbeth's dagger, among their clothes. Macduff uncovers this murder. A choir prays for this murderer to be avenged.


Scene I: “A Room in a Castle”

General Macbeth became king. But the witches prophesied that he would not establish a dynasty and that Banco would establish a new dynasty. He tells his wife that to prevent this prophecy from coming true, he decided to kill Banquo and his son, whom he invited to a banquet, before this banquet.

Scene II: "Outside the Castle"

A group of murderers lurk in ambush. Banquo is worried. Banquo is ambushed and killed, but he allows his son Fleanzio to escape the killers.

Scene III: “A Dining Hall in the Castle”

Macbeth welcomes its visitors in the dining hall of his castle. Seeing the incoming messengers leaving the table, Macbeth receives the news that Banquo was assassinated. But when he returns to the table, he sees Banquo's ghost sitting in his place. Macbeth starts shouting at the ghost. All the guests leave the banquet out of fear, and the banquet comes to an abrupt end.


Scene I: "Cave of the Witches"

In a dark cave, the witch women are gathered around a large boiling cauldron. Macbeth enters. The witches cast three ghosts for him with magic. The first ghost tells him not to be afraid of Macduff.

The second ghost says that he cannot be killed by a man born of a woman. Third, Birnam Woods declares that he will not be defeated before the Woodland marches against him.

The witches then show Macbeth the ghost of Banquo and the future king of Scotland, who will come to the throne, explaining that the original prophecy is true. Macbeth suddenly falls unconscious and finds himself in his castle when he wakes up. Macbeth and his wife decide to wipe out Macduff and Banquo's entire family.


Scene I:

A little further from the border is Birnam Wood. Macduff is determined to avenge the murder of his wife and children at the behest of the cruel dictator Macbeth. There he meets Malcolm, the son of King Duncan, and the army he has gathered in England. Malcolm orders his soldiers to cut a branch from the trees in Birnam Grove and keep it when they attack Macbeth's army. Malcolm and this army are determined to free Scotland from the yoke of a cruel dictatorship.

Scene II: "Macbeth's Castle"

While a servant and a doctor were sleeping, the queen of Macbeth was making gestures of washing her hands, as if trying to clean the blood from her hands.

Scene III: "Battlefield"

Macbeth receives news that an army is heading towards him to overthrow his rule.

But he remembers the prophecy of the ghosts and does not worry too much about this development. He also gets the news of his queen's death, but he doesn't care much about it. He gathers his soldiers and watches the army marching towards his castle.

He remains astonished at the army carrying tree branches in their hands; He arrived in front of the Birnam Woods castle. The two armies engage in combat. Macbeth loses the battle.

Macduff chases and fights the fleeing Macbeth; Macbeth is defeated.

 Macduff reveals to Macbeth that her mother did not give birth naturally, but that she was "removed" from her mother's womb by cesarean section. In his last breath, Macbeth, who was mortally wounded, said that the reason for his fall was because he believed in the prophecies brought from hell. Macbeth dies and Macduff's soldiers proclaim Macduff as the new king.

Comparison of Two Works

The two works, in which there are quite large differences, carry the characteristics of their periods in depth. Giuseppe Verdi is one of the most important representatives of the Italian Opera school and brought many innovations to the opera. Henry Purcell, on the other hand, made a difference especially with the works he wrote in English.

It is possible to feel a typical Baroque period piece in Henry Purcell's “Prelude for Sorcerers”. At the entrance, in the part dominated by string instruments, we hear the aria sung by the mezzo-soprano magician in one person.

Although the aria is usually recorded in parts, it was recorded in the second part of the World War II. It stretches almost halfway up the curtain. First the sorcerer and the first witch, then the wizard and the second witch, and finally the conversation of the two witches with each other is included in the whole section. Especially in the parts where the witches sing, we hear the richly ornamented structure, which is typical of baroque period works, and the continuous bass coming from behind, the instruments that completely imitate what the voices do. Although the plans made by the witches are plans that will affect the lives of Dido and Aeneas very badly, in my opinion, they are not given in a very scary way, rather they are shown as an aria where the witches have fun.

Witches are almost as important as the leading roles in Verdi's work and are the people who make the most important event of the story happen. In this work, witches are seen as evil and ugly and excluded from society. Verdi made great contributions to the history of Italian Opera and opera in general, and changed the opera in terms of subject and structure.

Characters that were portrayed much more freely than in previous periods are clearly carried onto the stage, just as in Macbeth. Here, the witches do not intend to do evil, as in Purcell's work, but to share their own insights. However, the related work was handled in a darker and more aggressive style. The sloppy behavior of witches manifests itself both in dance moves, in words and in music.

Instead of animating the texture of the work by using too much ornamentation as in Purcell's work, a complex melody was created and texture was gained. One of the most important differences between the two works is the instrument accompaniment. In Verdi's work, a much richer melodic structure is created by instruments. One of the most distinctive features of the Romantic period was the composition of works for large orchestras.

I thought that the similarity of the works, especially in terms of subject, would reveal more differences about the music, so I also examined the differences in the lyrics.

WITCHES: (Witches)

I.Three times the cat has mewed in heat.
II. Three times the hoopoe has mourned and wailed.
III. Three times the porcupine has yelped to the wind.

(Cat I purred three times in the heat.)
(II. Three times the hoopoe cried and mourned.)
(The Hedgehog III spoke to the wind three times.)

ALL (ALL witches):

This is the hour!
Come, let us dance quickly round the cauldron
and mix powerful brews in our circle.
Sisters, to work! The water is steaming,
crackling and bubbling.

(The time has come! Let's dance around our cauldron and stir strong brews. The water is boiling, bubbling and bubbling, Brothers, get to work!)

I. Poisonous toad,
which sucks wolfsbane,
thorn, root
plucked at twilight,
cook and bubble
in the devil's pot.

(Poison frog sucking uprooted Wolfsbane thorn at dusk, bake and bubbles in Devil's pot.)

II. tongue of viper,
hair of bat,
blood of monkey,
tooth of dog,
boil and be swallowed up
in the infernal brew

(Viper tongue, bat hair, monkey blood, canine tooth, boiled and swallowed in the devil's brew.)

III. Finger of child
strangled horse birth,
lip of Tartar,
heart of heretic,
thicken the hellish broth.

(It is darkened by the water of hell, the finger of a drowned child at birth, the lip of a Tatar, the heart of a pervert.)

ALL (ALL witches):

Boil! Boil!
black and white,
red and blue
blend together!
You who well
know how,
blend together!

(Boil, boil! Spirits, white and black; red and blue, those who know how to mix, mingle together!)

As you can see, words that would never be used in a Baroque work were used in the work. This is a settled situation in opera with Verdi. Now let's look at the words of the relevant part of the opera Dido and Aeneas:


Wayward sisters, you that fright
The lonely traveler by night
Who, like dismal ravens crying,
Beat the windows of the dying,
Appear! Appear at my call, and share in the fame Of a mischief shall make all Carthage flame. Appear!
[enter Enchantresses]


My perverted brothers, you;
You scared the solitary wanderer at night,
You screamed like a gloomy raven,
You had the window of the dead people stolen.
Bride! Come to my call and live the glory
Your deception that will burn Carthage.

[Witches take the stage]


Say, Beldam, say what's thy will.

FIRST witch

Tell me, tell me what you want


Harm's our delight and mischief all our skill.


Our pleasure is evil, all our skill is mischief.


The Queen of Carthage, whom we hate,
As we do all in prosp'rous state,
Ere sunset, shall most wretched prove,
Depriv'd of fame, of life and love!


We hate the Queen of Carthage
In this prosperous land we all
Before the sun goes down, let the worst of us prove it
Let him take away his life, his glory and his wound!


Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho! [etc.]


Ruin'd ere the set of sun?
Tell us, how shall this be done?

TWO witches

Before the sun goes down?
Tell us, how can this be done?


The Trojan Prince, you know, is bound
By Fate to seek Italian ground;
The Queen and he are now in chase.


You know, the Trojan Prince,
Destined to seek Italian land;
He and the queen are now helpless to each other.


Hark! Hark! the cry comes on apace.

FIRST witch

Listen! Listen! The howl breaks out fast.


But, when they've done, my trusty Elf
In form of Mercury himself
As sent from Jove shall chide his stay,
And charge him sail tonight with all his fleet away.


When they're together my faithful elf
Mercury in disguise
As if a messenger from Jupiter,
He will drive him away with his fleet.


Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho! [etc.]

[Enter a Drunken Sailor; a dance]


[A drunken sailor appears, dancing begins]


But ere we this perform,
We'll conjure for a storm
To mar their hunting sport
And drive 'em back to court.

TWO witches

But before that,
We will summon a storm
breaking the hunting games
We will drive them back to the palace.


[in the manner of an echo.]
In our deep vaulted cell the charm we'll prepare,
Too dreadful a practice for this open air.


[in echo]
We will prepare the spell in our domed dungeon,
This is open air, there is no fear.

ECHO DANCE [Enchantresses and Fairies]

Echo Dancing [Witches and Fairies]

*Poetry translation: Utku Asrın Karakuş.

As can be seen, the libretto of Henry Purcell's work was written using a much more poetic style, with the understanding of not losing aesthetics even in evil. This stylistic difference reveals the differences in the characteristics of the two periods. The most important step to understand the differences between two works is to listen to the works by adhering to the characteristics of a good listener.

If my writing needs to be rounded up, I think anyone who distinguishes the Baroque and Romantic eras will see the fundamental differences between these two works. Differences in lyrics, melodic structure and instrumentation are the main differences for these two works. The similarity in terms of subject and the replacement of the most crucial parts of the stories by the witches are similar parts of the two works.


“Oxford Companion of Music”, 295-296
Urgan, Mina (1965). Macbeth (A Review). Can Publications, Istanbul

Urgan, Mina (1965). Macbeth (A Review). Can Publications, Istanbul

Analysis of William Shakespeare's Play of Macbeth and its Transformation into Opera by Giuseppe Verdi, Ayşe DAĞISTANLI, Postgraduate Art Work Report, Ankara 2014.


Your email address Will not be published.