Cher Public

Sweet prince

The rediscovery of Franco Faccio’s Amleto, a curious score that last week, via Baltimore Concert Opera, received its first performances since 1871, reminds us just how tough an act Giuseppe Verdi was to follow.  

In 1865, when Faccio introduced his opera, set to the very first libretto of his fellow rebel, Arrigo Boito, Verdi had ruled the roost in solitary imperium for nearly twenty years, having outlived or outshone all his bel canto predecessors—and his last four operas were still to come. Young composers thought it was time for something new, but audiences weren’t sure what new thing they might want. Verismo lay a quarter century in the future. Wagner was unknown south of the Alps.

Amleto’s glory was brief. After a moderate success in Genoa in 1865, a triumph for the tenor, Tiburini, the piece was shelved during the Seven Weeks’ War. Faccio traveled north, hearing the “new” music and gaining experience as a conductor, while back home Boito produced his Mefistofele, a new and brilliant sort of opera but an oddity with no successors.

Faccio became the maestro of La Scala, where he revised Amleto, but he would consider no one for the long and difficult role of the Melancholy Dane but Tiburini, and Tiburini got sick. New date scheduled. But the star was sick again, and coughed and groaned all through the performance—and Amleto requires a strong singing actor at its very center. Faccio, shattered, withdrew his score.

For twenty years he defied Boito, Verdi and everyone else who suggested he revive it. You’d think Tamagno could have handled it—he was Verdi’s first Otello in 1887, to a Boito libretto, conducted by Franco Faccio, whose mistress sang Desdemona. All in the family. But no dice. Faccio went mad from syphilis.

The manuscript lay forgotten in Ricordi’s vaults until Anthony Barrese (pictured) stumbled on this footnote to so many careers and went looking for it. Putting it together has taken him eleven years. He has now led two performances in Baltimore (in concert, with piano accompaniment), while a fully-staged and orchestrated production is set for three performances by Albuquerque’s Opera Southwest later this month. Amleto will be live-streamed on October 26.

It would be a shame, after all this, if the piece had turned out to be thin gruel. In fact, besides being a fascinating first glimpse at Boito grappling with Shakespeare, Amleto is a taut, four-act score full of musical excitement growing from the familiar story.

It is intriguing to compare Amleto with its near contemporary, Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet, which premiered in 1868, the last hit of the Paris Opéra’s grand style.. Like Boito, Thomas’ librettists, Carré and Barbier, had to adjust Shakespeare to the expectations of an opera audience, but their alterations are less ingenious, than Boito’s.

Both teams reduced Polonius to a cipher but felt a need to beef up the role of Ophelia into a proper prima donna. From a very naive girl in Shakespeare she becomes a mature woman, sophisticated and passionate. Both operas turn her mad scene and death into a full-fledged scena—but in Thomas’, this is an overblown (if winsome) coloratura showstopper.

As lovers of Lucia well know, it is never easy to keep a story going after a soprano mad scene (and death). Thomas’ Hamlet almost ends with it, except there’s all that Duel and Gravedigger stuff still to come. In order for Thomas’ baritone Hamlet to reclaim the center stage after Ophélie’s protracted death trills, he is obliged to sing a drinking song before committing casual regicide and ascending the throne.

Faccio’s Ofelia, though brazenly flirting with the prince in public and heartbroken when he orders her “Fatti monachella,” Get thee to a nunnery, dies mad but broken, without fireworks, a gentler portrait. Both composers give the queen (in Amleto, a soprano; in Hamlet, a mezzo) an aria of remorse, answering a question Shakepeare left open: Was she an accessory before the fact? Were she and Claudius carrying on? The English leave her to heaven; the French and Italians do not believe that for a moment.

In Amleto, the prince is a tenor. Yes, there’s a drinking song, impious and bombastic—but it is Claudio, the usurper, who sings to celebrate his accession. (Was Faccio thinking of the vulgar brindisi of Verdi’s Lady Macbeth? Perhaps.) Everyone joins in—except the disgusted Amleto. His contrast to the celebratory mood is thus made plain from the start.

Boito then takes advantage of things you can do in an opera but not a play to have Orazio and Marcello inform Amleto that they’ve seen a Ghost while the carousing continues behind them. Two or three scenes of Shakespeare are thus presented in a single musical construct!

Faccio and Boito had not quite decided whether to stick with the old-fashioned “numbers” of opera or to move on to a more symphonic style, as Verdi was doing. Shakespeare’s soliloquies become accompanied declamations rather than melodious cavatinas, and Amleto must sing several of them, holding the audience with the moodiness of his thought. Italians can’t have been used to this in 1865, but it is a form familiar to us.

Amleto declaims “Essere o non essere,” of course, but he follows it with a bitter strophic song to the helpless Ofelia. His brooding, his frustrated urgency, are all declaimed in reflective arioso, in blank verse rather than the traditional couplets that then bursts out into bitter song as if he were speaking aloud after long, bitter reflection.

Alex Richardson sang with a grim and vivid tension that was always musical. At first I thought his voice too light for the challenge, but he rose to it with the proper cliff-edge tenor ping: a singer and an actor. Abla Lynn Hamza, more the amorous type than a mad coloratura, warmed up slowly but sang Ofelia with gracious spinto tones.

Claudio, too, reflects on his guilt in arioso that Amleto mistakes for prayer, therefore sparing his life. Then we, but not Amleto, hear Claudio sing the Lord’s Prayer, reflecting line by line that the phrases do not come from his heart, that his repentance is dissipated in horror. As in any performance of the play, Claudio is the second most interesting part. Shannon De Vine, whose voice seems light for, say, a thundering Verdi baritone, held the stage valorously over a considerable range of emotions and dynamics, scowling grimly with eye and voice: Claudio must smile, plotting murder while he smiles.

A witty touch, typical of Boito’s sidelong jokes in Mefistofele, is the play-within-a-play, set in a prettily antique style. Older courtiers exclaim over the beauty of the singing and younger ones complain about the old-fashioned music. What develops, when Claudio recognizes the story as his own, is an old-fashioned end-of-the-act concertato.

The scene in the Queen’s Closet is one of the tightest and deftest. Blank verse takes us through the murder of Polonio (baritone Jeffrey Grayson Gates, who doubled as the merry Gravedigger) and the mother-son confrontation, exploding into furious, sarcastic song for Amleto, satirizing the king.

Then enter the Ghost (bass Matthew Curran, in a noble performance) for a verse admonition that became a lively trio. And why not have them all sing at once? It’s an exciting tune and there is no new information requiring words to convey it. When prince and Ghost depart, Geltrude has her solo moment. Caroline Worra’s range is exceptional and her coloratura well-produced, but I find her top notes shrill, her chest voice ill-supported. She tends to sing “around” the notes instead of precisely on them.

It is difficult to rate Amleto’s worth on one hearing, but it passes my personal test: I’d gladly go hear the score again next week, if that were possible. The work is well-paced and moves through this elaborate story with a minimum of confusion, rising to proper musical climaxes. The melodies do not sound like Verdi or Boito or anyone else, but their style will appeal to those who love middle Verdi. There is work here for singing actors of ability to show it off, and Baltimore Concert Opera was fortunate to have so impressive a cast, most of whom will repeat their roles with Southwest Opera.