Franco Faccio’s Amleto (Hamlet)
To Be or Not to Be Shakespeare
By Karen Nafziger
See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Composer: Franco Faccio
Librettist: Arrigo Boito
Premiered 1865, Revised in 1871
Amleto: Alex Richardson, Tenor
Ofelia: Abla Lynn Hamz, Soprano
Claudio: Shannon A. DeVine, Baritone
Geltrude: Caroline Worra Soprano
Spettro/Luciano: Matthew Curran, Bass
Laerte: Roland Sanz, Tenor
Orazio: Eric Bash, Bass
Conductor: Anthony Barrese
Pianist: Michael Dauphinais
Baltimore Concert Opera
On October 2 and October 5, 2014, audiences in Baltimore, Maryland were part of opera history, as they enjoyed the revival of Franco Faccio’s Amleto, (“Hamlet”), an opera which had been lost to mankind for nearly 150 years. Presented as a concert performance with excellent piano accompaniment by Michael Dauphinais, this performance was a prelude to the full staging, with the same cast, by Opera Southwest in Albuquerque, New Mexico three weeks later.
Amleto, written by the 25 year old Faccio, does not reach the standard of a masterpiece by a Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), but it is definitely worthy of performance, and Conductor Anthony Barrese has given mankind a wonderful gift in reviving this lost work, after years of researching in the Ricordi archives and reconstructing it from historical documents. The work received an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response both in Baltimore and in Albuquerque, where it was staged with costumes, settings and a full orchestra.
However, it must be said that the staged performance, which was streamed online, was marred by the very flawed decision of artistic director, David Bartholomew to set this opera in early 20th century! As he told the Albuquerque Journal News, “It is not in period. It is turn-of-the-century right at the peak of Freudian analysis. I wanted relevance to this century, and I wanted to explore the Freudian Oedipus complex and the mother thing. And Ophelia going off the deep end.” This arrogant and unwarranted decision of many directors, to change the opera’s setting, is an all too common, but malevolent tendency.
Franco Faccio (1840-1891), the composer, and librettist Arrigo Boito (1842-1918) were close friends and members of the Scapigliatura, a group of young, outspoken intellectuals and artists who, in the wake of the recent unification of Italy, intended to revolutionize opera and compose only creative “music for the future.” At a party in 1863 celebrating the success of Faccios’s first opera I profughi fiamminghi in 1863, a poem was improvised and published by Boito, including the stanza “Perhaps the man is already born, modest and pure, who will set art erect once more on that altar, befouled like a brothel wall…” Although composer Giuseppe Verdi was never the intended target of those lines, Verdi was insulted by the poem, which had been published. Ironically, Faccio had just written to Verdi informing him of the success of his opera, humbly sending his and Boito’s regards, and hoping for a positive reply from the master composer.,(*) But this wound to Verdi would take years to heal.
The young Scapigliatura group admired Verdi, and when they set up a Quartet society they asked him to be the head of it (which he refused.) They published articles on art, opera, aesthetics, as well as poetry and librettos. Verdi’s friends, including Countess Maffei, Tito Ricordi and especially his son Giulio, were unrelenting in their attempts starting in 1864 to get Verdi to collaborate with Faccio and Boito, the young creative, anti-establishment musician-poets. It was five years later, when Verdi returned to Milan and La Scala, that Faccio conducted Verdi’s La Forza del Destino.
Faccio premiered Amleto at the age of 25, on May 30, 1865 at Genova’s Teatro Carlo Felice. This performance received very good reviews, but not the success that Faccio had hoped for. In 1871, Faccio revised his Amleto for Milan's La Scala, but the opening was first postponed due to the the illness of the tenor in the title role of Hamlet, and then a fiasco, when his illness recurred on opening night. Verdi thought highly of Faccio, and was saddened when he heard that Amleto had failed at La Scala, and that Faccio had pulled the score. But Faccio continued conducting, and he premiered Verdi's Aida, Simon Boccanegra and Otello. It took another decade for Verdi to fully reconcile with Boito. But beginning in 1879, Boito and Verdi worked closely as Boito became the librettist for old master on his two Shakespeare based operas, Otello and Falstaff.
Both Faccio and librettist Boito had joined Garibaldi’s brigade in 1866 to free Venice to join the newly established Italian kingdom, and traveled extensively throughout Europe. During these travels they became more familiar with the "northern music", including Lieder, symphonies, Beethoven’s Fidelio and a Wagner opera. Faccio did some opera conducting in Scandanavia, and made a trip to Elsinore, Denmark to visit the royal castle.
Transforming Shakespeare to Opera
Now, condensing a Shakespeare play into a reasonable time frame to be performed as an opera, is not an easy matter. Librettist Arrigo Boito was considered to be the best, while also being true to Shakespeare. But, even he was not able to accomplish this with King Lear, without completely stripping the play of some of the most essential elements. In Boito’s libretto for Otello, composed by Guiseppe Verdi, he eliminated the first act and placed the action in the second act.
With Hamlet, he turned the first act into two scenes. But what the 27 year old Boito sacrifices there is the critical, political side of Shakespeare’s play, that the nation of Denmark is in danger of invasion and destruction, a destruction guaranteed by the lack of leadership in such a time of crisis. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the warnings of Fortinbras do not appear in Faccio’s Amleto.
The opera opens with the celebration at Elsinore of the wedding of Claudius and Gertrude, Hamlet refusing to join in the festivities. Hamlet is told by his friends of their encounter with a ghost the previous night. In scene two, Hamlet joins his two friends to wait for the appearance of the ghost, the ghost of his murdered father, the King of Denmark. This is a powerful scene, with the ghost making Hamlet swear to seek revenge for his murder, and his friends to swear to silence. The ghost brings to mind the last scene of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, as he sings from off stage “Giurate” (Swear). Hamlet’s famous soliloquy opens the second act, which Faccio revised from a recitative to an aria “Essere o no essere!” – “To be or not to be.” Here, Hamlet recruits the roving band of singers to perform a play about regicide in order to “catch the conscience of the King”.
Hamlet succeeds in his effort as a horrified Claudius runs from the room. Scene three opens with the aria of Claudius in prayer, Hamlet nearby who decides he would not send Claudius to heaven, so he awaits a better time to gain his revenge. Claudius, “My lips pray—but my soul and heart are of ice” recants his own prayer before he rises. The following scene is where Hamlet stabs and kills Polonius, thinking the figure behind the curtain must be Claudius. The ghost reappears to again insist on revenge. The scene ends with Ophelia’s aria, as she descends into madness and drowns herself in the river. Act 4 ends the opera, opening with the gravediggers and the funeral procession for Ophelia. The secret plan between Claudius and Laertes to kill Hamlet with a poisoned sword in a duel, of course ends with all dead. But, without the role of Fortinbras, the Norwegian prince, now the conqueror of Denmark, the intended lesson of Shakespeare’s tragedy is lost.
Without the backdrop of the political reality, a subtext used by Shakespeare throughout the play, the story takes on the character of a dysfunctional family at best, or a modern day soap opera at worst. One can only wonder if that would be different had Boito collaborated with Verdi on this opera, rather than the 25 year old Faccio.
First Performance in 143 Years
Meastro Barrese became aware of the opera in 2003, but it was unpublished. So he sought out a musicologist in Milan and was able to locate the autograph and secure a microfilm of Faccio’s handwritten score. He also located a microfilm of Boito’s libretto at the Performing Arts Library in New York. With these two documents in hand and the help of American musicologist and Verdi expert, Phillip Gossett, Barrese set off on a 11 year journey of painstakingly reproducing the score, note by note. In an interview with the Baltimore Sun, Barrese described the opera, “I think the music is gorgeous, sweeping and melodic. But, at this point, I have no objectivity at all. There have been few moments of not thinking about this opera for 11 years.” After such work, that he would allow the director Bartholomew to modernize Faccio’s, and Shakespeare’s setting of this opera, is evidence of the collapsed culture of today’s world, in which we live.
But overall, it was a real treat to be in the audience for the performance of Amleto for the first time anywhere in 143 years, by the Baltimore Concert Opera. In the Albuquerque performance, the cast was more secure in their singing, with Shannon De Vine as Claudio, and Caroline Worra as Geltrude giving exceptional performances. Alex Richardson, as Hamlet, filled the role handsomely in Albuquerque—a role that requires non-stop singing from beginning to end. The cast and the audiences seemed to have a sense that history was being made with this premiere performance of Faccio’s Amleto. This opera is worthy to be performed again, and hopefully we will see it on many stages around the world, as the composer originally intended.
(*) … “You can imagine that, in writing these lines, I am filled with that awed shyness that the very small man feels in the presence of the very great..."
Quotes are from "The Verdi-Boito Correspondence" by Marcello Conati and Mario Medici, English Edition by William Weaver