Scene 1. On a wild heath in Scotland, three groups of witches sing of their magical powers. Macbeth and Banquo enter, returning from a successful military campaign, and question the witches about the future. The three groups hail Macbeth first as Thane of Glamis, then Thane of Cawdor and finally King of Scotland. Maintaining the threefold division, they cryptically tell Banquo that he will be less great than Macbeth, but greater; less happy, but happier; and not a king, but a father of kinds. The witches disappear. Messengers from King Duncan arrive, greeting Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor, the previous Thane having been executed as a traitor. Macbeth and Banquo reflect on the prophecy. After the men depart, the witches complete the scene with another chorus.
Scene 2. In Macbeth’s castle, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband, telling of the prophecy. She resolves to see him on the throne. A servant informs her that Macbeth is coming, accompanied by King Duncan, who will spend the night at their castle. Alone again, Lady Macbeth invokes the spirits of hell to help with her plan, and when Macbeth enters, she convinces him that he must murder Duncan. Music plays in the distance as Duncan approaches, accompanied by his retinue.
Later that evening, Macbeth has visions of his bloodied knife and ponders the course of the action he is about to undertake. He goes to Duncan’s room, murders him and returns to Lady Macbeth. Macbeth worries that he will never find peace again, but Lady Macbeth encourages him to be bold and then tells him to go back and smear blood on Duncan’s sleeping guards. Macbeth refuses, overcome with guilt and fearing that his hands will be forever stained with blood. Lady Macbeth takes the knife and goes into Duncan’s chamber to implicate the guards.
She returns just in time to lead Macbeth away before Macduff and Banquo enter. Macduff goes to wake the king, discovers the murder and sounds an alarm. Servants and retainers crowd into the hall, followed by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Banquo, having entered Duncan’s chamber after Macduff, tells the assembled cast of Duncan’s fate, and they denounce the murder, asking for God’s help to find and punish the guilty party.
Scene 1. Macbeth broods in a room in the castle and is joined by Lady Macbeth. Malcolm has fled to England, arousing suspicion that he may have been involved in his father’s murder, and Macbeth has become King. Worried about the prophecy, the two decide that Banquo must die and Macbeth exits. Lady Macbeth ponders the implications of another murder, but decides it is necessary. She rejoices in the prospect of ascending the throne with her husband and of ending Banquo’s chances to interfere in their plans.
Scene 2. On the castle grounds, two groups of assassins confront one another and then band together to do Macbeth’s bidding. They hide in the woods and Banquo and his son Fleance enter. Banquo tells his son of a sense of foreboding. As they wander into the woods, Banquo is attacked and calls to his son, telling him to flee, that they have been betrayed. Fleance runs away pursued by an assassin.
Scene 3. Macbeth greets the gathered nobles and asks his wife to propose a toast. One of the assassins appears at a side door and tells Macbeth that Banquo has been killed. As Macbeth returns to his place, he alone sees a vision of Banquo. Thinking it is a prank, Macbeth demands to know who is responsible, but then addresses the apparition, which disappears. Lady Macbeth tries to gain control of the situation with another verse of the drinking song, but the ghost reappears to Macbeth. This time Macbeth confronts the spirit and his wife and their guests react to his apparent madness.
In a dark green cavern, the witches are tending a boiling cauldron and singing about the ingredients and recipe for their infernal brew. Macbeth enters asking about the future and is given the choice of hearing it from the witches themselves or the unknown powers that are their masters. When he chooses the unknown powers, three apparitions appear in succession in the cauldron. The first, a helmeted warrior, warns him to beware of Macduff. The second, a bloodied child, assures him that no man born of a woman will harm him. The third, a child wearing a crown, reveals that Macbeth will rule gloriously and invincibly until Birnam Wood rises against him. Macbeth asks if the children of Banquo will take his crown and is told not to ask. He threatens the spirits with a sword, but to no avail. Eight kings pass by and the appearance of the last, Banquo, causes Macbeth to cry out in terror. Macbeth realizes that he is doomed and faints. The witches call for the spirits to revive Macbeth and they disappear. Lady Macbeth enters and Macbeth tells her of the prophecy and the apparitions. They resolve to kill Macduff, his family and Banquo’s son.
Scene 1. On the border between Scotland and England, near Birnam Wood, Scottish refugees lament being forced from their homeland. Macduff, standing aside, laments the loss of his wife and children at the hand of Macbeth. Malcolm enters, leading an army of English soldiers. He tells them to cut branches from the wood to use as camouflage for an attack on Macbeth’s castle.
Scene 2. A doctor and a lady-in-waiting watch in horror as Lady Macbeth sleepwalks through the castle. Riddled with guilt, she relives the murders and curses the famous blood spot.
Scene 3. In another hall, Macbeth rails against those who have joined the English but recalls the prophecy of the witches and believes that he is safe. However, he laments the fact that he will not have a comfortable old age or be remembered kindly. Messengers come to tell him that Lady Macbeth is dead and that Birnam Wood is on the move.
Scene 4. On a plain near Macbeth’s castle, Macduff is leading the English army as they advance behind their cover of branches. He confronts Macbeth, who believes he is still protected by the prophecy. Macduff tells him that he was not born of a woman, but “untimely ripped from my mother’s womb.” The two men exit, fighting. A chorus of women and children flee in terror, until the soldiers proclaim victory. Macduff returns, having killed Macbeth. Bards, soldiers and women celebrate the victory and proclaim Malcolm their new king.
Courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago and Richard Wilson