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.

  • Will

    Fascinating, thank you, John! I gave a symposium on Shakespeare made into opera last spring and mentioned Faccio’s opus and the ill-fortune that dogged it. I will look forward to the live stream, particularly in the light of your detailed description of the opera.

  • I can’t help but recall Anna Russell, who used to give a magisterial synopsis (with musical examples) of Verdi’s “Amleto.” “I’m sure you all know that Verdi made a number of Shakespeare’s plays into operas. He did not, in fact, make one out of Hamlet, but I wouldn’t dream of letting that stand in my way.”
    How that lady could italicize!

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Several years ago, there was a private reading of the opera with piano for Domingo to determine if he wanted to sing it.

  • Orlando Furioso

    This Hamlet wasn’t completely forgotten. In 1964 Winton Dean discussed it in his classic essay “Shakespeare in Opera.” He had considerable praise for Boito’s libretto, rather less for the score, but made it sound worth an occasional look.

  • aulus agerius

    I would’ve attended this had I known in time as I’m in DC to attend Opera Lafayette last night. Les Fetes was v. entertaining -- some good voices: a terrific bass, a couple of good tenors and sopranos, but it was the dance that mesmerized. I recommend this Thursday night in NYC.

  • Orlando --
    I read the Dean essay. He praises the libretto (which he had seen) but says not a word about the music because he never saw the score.

    • Orlando Furioso

      Thank you, Hans. I suppose I could try to plead that saying nothing at all is a form of “less,” but I’ll just admit that I shouldn’t rely on decades-old memory.

  • mercadante

    I actually have a recording of one of Ofelia’s arias from this opera sung by a fine soprano named Chloe Owen. It was recorded circa 1960 and is part of a cd called “Souvenires of 19th Century Operas” which is full of pieces from this no man’s land period of 1860 a 1890; Petrella, Gomes, Marxhetti, Faccio. I found the aria quite lovely and would like to explore the work in full. Perhaps it will be broadcast?

    • Milady DeWinter

      OMG, as they say: Chloe Owen! There’s a name from my chiaroscuroed past. I attended a master class with her in Buffalo (‘My puberty was bleak in Buffalo’….) and she was smart and lovely, in voice and person.

  • Mercadante (a name after my own heart):

    I’d love to hear that CD! I don’t know Petrella or much of Gomes, but Marchetti is a fine late bel canto melodist. I wonder where she found Ofelia’s arias?

    Read the review and you will see that Amleto will indeed be broadcast later this month.

  • mercadante

    Yes, I like Marchetti and have his Riy Blas and his Romeo e Giulietta, both of which are enjoyable second rate operas with some lovely tunes interspersed with more workman-like pages. But melodious, fun, and grateful for singers.

  • Marchetti’s Romeo e Giulietta is (imho) far and away the best operatic version of that story — though Vaccai’s is pretty good. Best up until Bernstein in any case.

  • laddie

    Thank you Thank you! I live in Albuquerque and was on the fence about going, NOW I am going!

  • Sempre liberal

    Amleto? I thought it was an Italian opera about cooked eggs. (Similar plot to FrOSch, naturally.)

    • Angelo Saccosta

      What is important to note is that Boito is the next revolutionary in Italian Opera after Rossini, and that Boito effected the revolution by changing the way the poetry of the libretto was constructed. Up to that point there were rigid rules about the number of syllables in the set numbers. The only place that free verse was permitted was in the recitative. Donizetti et al got around that to a degree by making the recitatives more expressive musically than they had heretofore been, but the formal numbers remained as before. Listen to Boito’s Mefistofele, Bottesini’s Ero e Leandro with a Boito libretto and apparently here in Amleto as well and you see the effect of the loosening of the poetry.
      The change in Italian Opera after this is almost palpable. Ponchielli, Gomes, Marchetti et al provide examples.

      • Quanto Painy Fakor

        Interesting to note that Boito also made singable translations of Weber’s Der Freischütz (with recitatives by Franco Faccio) and Wagner’s RIENZI.

        • Angelo Saccosta

          Thanks for that note, Quanto. They were they avant-garde (Beatniks ??) of their day, Boito, Faccio, and a sizable group of others.

          • Quanto Painy Fakor


  • Angelo, I think Verdi was quite revolutionary, getting rid of the last survivals of the Rossini school, and then leading a revolution against the aria-cabaletta requirement into the extended aria that moves from thought to thought. This occurs in Amleto, but it also occurs in Boccanegra (an opera where the title character doesn’t have an aria!) and, in embryo, in Vepres, Ballo, Forza and the revised Macbeth. So Verdi was anticipating Boito’s transformations.

    • Angelo Saccosta

      Yes, Hans, but your key words are “in embryo,” because even as late as Aida, think “Vieni meco insieme fuggiamo.” That’s the last dying gasp of a cabaletta and think “Sequirti fino agl’ultimi confini della terra,” in Forza. And count the syllables. That’s the key that Boito gave him for Otello, revised Simone and Falstaff. I think we now call it Free Verse.

  • Much better than Thomas’ Hamlet’s drinking song.

  • And what drinking song does Hamlet sing after Ophelia dies? I just checked the score and the only aria he has is the one I posted by Keenleyside.

  • Hamlet’s drinking song does occur earlier. It is called, “Ô vin, dissipe la tristesse qui pése sur mon cœur! À moi les rêves de l’ivresse et le rire moqueur!”

    Keenlyside may have omitted it or (at the Met) may simply have been inaudible, as he was for most of the evening. The Met also used a brand new ending, where the Ghost slew the King, which means Hamlet need not even have bothered to show up that evening. The story would work itself out without him. (I’m not sure if they invented that idiot ending in Geneva. It certainly wasn’t Thomas’ idea, and it wasn’t used when NYCO did it.)