Small picture of Donizetti

 

 

 

 

 

Hamlet  Comes  Back to Life in Albuquerque

by Charles Jernigan (October 26, 2014)

(Photographs courtesy of Opera Southwest)

The melancholy Dane's last words in Shakespeare's Hamlet are "The rest is silence."  Franco Faccio might have had the same thought after his opera Amleto failed on opening night at La Scala in 1871.  After that disastrous performance it sank into almost total oblivion until this afternoon, and then, after almost 150 years of silence, Amleto roared  back to life in a most unlikely venue: the Albuquerque Journal Theater of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a fine production by Opera Southwest.  

As a title, Amleto has been known to musicologists and Verdi lovers for a long time as a significant work in an odd corner of Verdi’s biography and in Italian operatic history, but until today, the opera itself has been unknown and unstaged since 1871.  Amleto was an important work in the nineteenth century movement in Italian arts known as Scapigliatura: Faccio was ascapigliato and so was Arrigo Boito, librettist of Amleto  -- and of Verdi's Otello and Falstaff, as well as being the composer/librettist of Mefistofele.  But until yesterday, no one could judge the quality of the work itself or assess it as a rare representative of Scapigliatura.

The good news, no, the great news, is that Amleto is a major work, a beautiful and eminently stage-worthy work, and also a work that Opera Southwest staged and performed with great élan and competence.  Boito's libretto for Amleto strikes me as truly remarkable, not least for his ability to cut a long and complex drama to manageable lengths for opera.  Gone are some secondary characters like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but many others are kept, including Horatio, Laertes, Polonius and the gravediggers.  The opera cuts Shakespeare’s opening scene on the battlements where the Ghost of Hamlet's late father appears to Horatio and Marcellus, and instead opens with a party where the new King Claudius is celebrating his coronation.  When Ophelia enters in that first scene, Boito pulls Hamlet’s memorable poem for her from Act II of the play (“Doubt that the stars are fire”) and gives it to Ophelia herself as a lovely lyrical aria (instead of having Polonius read it as in the play).  And yet we have all the essential scenes of the play--the encounter with the Ghost, the play within the play, Claudius’ attempt at prayer, Hamlet's encounter with Ophelia when he pretends to have lost his reason ("Get thee to a nunnery"),Hamlet’s killing of Polonius and furious argument with his mother, Ophelia’s mad scene, the gravediggers’ scene, the funeral and the duel with Laertes and final tragedy.

Boito is extremely faithful to Shakespeare.  And several of the great soliloquies are there--”To be or not to be” of course, but also “O that this too, too solid flesh would melt.”  Whenever Boito can stick close to Shakespeare’s words, he does.  This is not the place to get into it, but he also uses a much greater variety of verse forms and unusual vocabulary than one finds in the repetitious and formulaic “librettese” that all opera lovers are used to.

One of the few places that the poetry sounds like a traditional Italian operatic libretto is in the play within the play.  In Shakespeare, the players enact an old play called The Murder of Gonzago in order "to catch the conscience of the King,” a play which Hamlet calls “The Mousetrap” (”La trappola” in Boito).  Here Boito uses a meter that would be right at home in a libretto by Cammarano (Lucia) or Romani (NormaLa sonnambula), or  Piave (Traviata)--fine librettists of an earlier time, but much more restricted in their poetic meters and word choice than what one finds in Amleto.  Boito even has a little fun with his critics when he adds a few lines not in Shakespeare in choral reactions to the play within the play. “Young spectators” say, “This music bores us./The singers are putting us to sleep,” while the “Old spectators” say, “What enchantment!  Bravi, bravi,/Long live the art of our ancestors!”  The old spectators applaud the play done in the old way with the old poetic meters; the young avant-garde finds it boring!  That’s a kind of metatheater that you don’t often find in nineteenth century opera.

It is abundantly clear that Boito’s libretto is a minor masterpiece in translating Shakespeare for the operatic stage, and an example of Scapigliatura because it partially moves away from traditional operatic language and forms.  It is an obvious forecast of Boito’s other great Shakespeare libretti, Otello and Falstaff, probably the two best libretti in Italian.  

Faccio's music is "new" too, in the sense that it is constantly trying, usually successfully, to paint scenes and moods in the orchestra.  Mood setting in the cellos or horns or a cor anglais solo paint each scene before the singing begins.  In the opening scene Faccio composes dialogue about the Ghost between Hamlet and Marcello and Horatio to something vaguely reminiscent of the scene between Sparafucile and Rigoletto while most of the courtiers are celebrating in a catchy waltz.  The contrast is stunning.  Mood painting in the orchestra is everywhere, such as the spooky music when the Ghost speaks to Hamlet, or the ethereal music for Ophelia's mad scene, which reminds  me a little of the final scene from Meyerbeer's L'Africaine (1865).  There are also daring harmonies for the time.

That is not to say that there are not arias or trios or large ensemble pieces such as one might have in a Verdi opera of about the same time.  Act II ends when King Claudius runs horrified from the play within the play and there is a great concertato finale such as one finds at the end of many a second act in Italian opera, and it is very exciting.  Ophelia gets that formal and very beautiful mad scene, less florid than Lucia's or the mad scene in Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet, but more modern in the coloring and mood painting.  There is even a flute accompaniment, as one finds in Lucia, but more subtle.  Geltrude (Gertrude) gets an aria after her scene with Hamlet, which is a tour de force.  The only bit of longeur I felt in the opera was in the Ghost's long recounting of his murder to Hamlet ("Tu dei sapere ch'io son l'anima lesa").

 

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Ophelia and Hamlet

 

The score builds too; Acts III and IV are even better than the first two acts.  Musically, there is one striking and dramatic scene after another including Claudius' attempt to pray, the encounter with Geltrude and Polonius' murder, Geltrude's aria, and Ophelia's mad scene.  Tension mounts almost unbearably to the gravedigger's scene where there is a moment of respite and a bit of black comedy, but that leads into Ophelia's funeral.  This stunning scene begins with the Funeral March, which is the only part of the opera to have had at least a little life after the fiasco in 1871.  The theme from the march becomes the basis of a large ensemble with the grief-stricken Hamlet and the furious Laertes expressing their feelings as the chorus laments the dead Ophelia.  It is surely the highlight of the score, but the final scene does not let us down, musically or dramatically.

Opera can do only so much with the philosophical aspects of Hamlet the play, and Boito and Faccio leave out the political themes, but that leaves a lot, and we have several very complex characters (Ophelia is much more important than she is in Shakespeare).  Faccio's music often reveals their feelings in a way that goes beyond words.

 

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Hamlet, Claudius and Gertrude

 

When we came to Albuquerque, I suspected and hoped that we might find a worthy resurrection in Faccio's score, but I have to confess that I did not expect much more than a competent performance from a small, local company.  How wrong I was.  Alex Richardson, a tenor from Las Cruces, New Mexico, surpassed all my expectations as Amleto.  Much of the vocal writing for Hamlet is declamatory; it is not florid in the bel  canto sense, and occasionally it seems in listening to him that we are listening to Turridu in Cavalleria or Cavaradossi in Tosca.  Richardson started strong vocally if a little stolidly in his acting, but before long he was flinging himself into the part.  By the time he got to the scene with his mother, he was just superb.  The wicked King Claudio was Shannon De Vine, a fine baritone who has sung (and will sing) verismo roles in Andrea Chenier, BohèmeAdriana Lecouvreur and Tosca.  His acting was sometimes chilling.  Abla Lynn Hamza sang Ophelia with beauty of tone and a powerful reach.  I have to confess that in the mad scene she almost brought me to tears.  Caroline Worra as Hamlet's mother Geltrude, was powerful and more than rose to the occasion in her duet with Hamlet which becomes a trio when the Ghost intervenes, and in her aria.  In fact everyone in the large cast was first rate, and they threw themselves into their roles in a way that made the whole  experience very gripping.

 

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Hamlet and Gertrude

 

The stage director, David Bartholomew, set the opera around the turn of the twentieth century.  There was a unit set of a two story Victorian iron structure with a spiral staircase that served for rooms in the Danish court, the battlements and the graveyard.  It was simple and effective, and the singers and large chorus were moved around effectively too.  Occasionally there were projections of painted scenes like Elsinore Castle from the first production in the nineteenth century.  Costumes by Virginia Anna Constantz were late Victorian more or less and perhaps a bit provincial; for the play within a play, the "actors" were in Renaissance style.  That play-within-the-play, by the way, was really a mini-opera-within-the-opera, and Opera Southwest brought a string quartet and a harp onstage to accompany it.  It was impossible for me not to think of the little play-within-the-play in I pagliacci in watching and listening to this crucial part.  In fact it is hard to imagine that the score of Amleto was totally unknown to the verismo composers who would come along in a couple of decades, buried as that score presumably was.

 

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Laertes, Horatio and Hamlet

 

Most impressive were the large chorus under Paul Bower and the orchestra under Maestro Anthony Barrese.  Without Barrese, there would have been no Amleto for us to see, and he had whipped his forces into a superb ensemble.  There is a lot of exposed horn writing in Amleto, and I did not hear one mistake, always the sign of good playing.

At the end, the sold out audience rose as one, and for once the standing ovation was well deserved.  When Amleto failed at La Scala in 1871, Faccio or perhaps one of his students, hung a sign on a door at the Milan Conservatory: "Closed for the death of Amleto."  If Faccio's ghost is watching  from somewhere, I think he would be pleased.  And for me at least, the standing ovation, which went on and on, was certainly for the company and Maestro Barrese, but it was also for him.

   

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Curtain Call

 

The Importance of Amleto

In 1865, when Amleto first saw the light of day in Genoa, Giuseppe Verdi was 52 and the best known exponent of Italian culture by far.  That year the revised version of Macbeth had its debut in Paris, and Verdi was starting to think about Don Carlos, which would be premiered in Paris in 1867.  Verdi stood so much taller than other Italian composers of the time that, with the exception of Ponchielli, today the work of his rivals is hardly known, but he was not unchallenged: a group of young avant-gardists made it their goal to take on the status quo.  They adopted the term scapagliati for themselves, the ‘disheveled ones’; we might translate the term as ‘bohemians’, or as one wag has called them, ‘the slobs’.  At the head of this movement in literature, art and music were Faccio, Boito and the writer Emilio Praga, and Faccio’s Amleto was hailed as an attempt to conceptualize the movement’s ideas in opera, the most important of the musical arts in nineteenth century Italy.

To define exactly what Scapigliatura meant in terms of art is not easy because the members produced no definitive manifesto and not many works of art, but they embraced foreign influences, especially Poe and Baudelaire in literature, and they welcomed Wagner in music.  They rebelled against Catholic clericalism and traditional or academic art of any kind.  Fascination with German culture was one aspect of Scapigliatura, and Boito got into an actual duel with a man who decried the influence of German music (Wagner) on traditional Italian melody.  An argument in a bar escalated into a duel with pistols, and Boito was wounded in the hand.  (I don’t know what happened to the defender of Italian melody.)  

Atone point during those years, Boito wrote an article on aesthetics, full of generalities and ambiguities, in which he tried to differentiate the “sublime” from the “beautiful.”  The sublime, wrote Boito, was simple and “spherical” (whatever that means; it is ambiguous, and the scapigliati like ambiguity): the sun is sublime, Dante is sublime, Shakespeare is sublime.  The merely beautiful was very fine, like a perfect carnation (don’t ask); some Mozart is “beautiful” (but not sublime).

Such aesthetic ambiguity was open to jest and ridicule, and Boito got it from several quarters, including Verdi, who hoped in one of his letters that he was not a “spherical.”  In music, the scapagliati thought that opera was the noblest form for their time, but they denigrated much of the popular opera, generally without naming composer’s names.  But in 1863, to celebrate the debut of Faccio’s first opera, I profughi fiamminghi (The Flemish Refugees), with text by Praga, Boito composed a poem which he read at a celebration for the opera’s first performance.  The ode, a toast to Italian Art, recalled the greatness of the past and the decadence of the present, and in the process of complimenting Faccio, Boito wrote some lines that he would have cause to regret:

Forse già nacque chi sovra l’altare

Rizzerà l’arte, verecondo e puro,

Su quell’altar bruttato come un muro

Di lupinare.

 

[Perhaps one is already born who will raise up

art, modest and pure, above the altar,

that altar, fouled like the wall

Of a whorehouse.]

This poetic toast to Franco Faccio got around to Giuseppe Verdi because Boito, proud of what he had written, promptly had it published, and Verdi, as the most famous exponent of Italian culture, took it to mean that Boito was referring to him as someone who had turned Italian Art into a whorehouse--or at least had pissed on the wall.  It irritated Verdi, to say the least, and for many years he did not forget what he thought of as a slight; he referred to it often in his letters.  From everything we know, Boito and Faccio admired Verdi, and Boito did not intend to slander him in the ode, but when the music publisher Ricordi suggested that Boito work on the revised libretto of La forza del destino, Verdi rejected the idea.  It took many years before Verdi was reconciled with Boito and Faccio, and only then through the slow and careful ministrations of his music publisher, Tito Ricordi.  But when reconciliation finally came, it produced one of the greatest alliances in music history.

Faccio's first opera, I profughi fiamminghi was a failure in 1863, but two years later, in 1865,Amleto was successful in Genoa.  The story is of course taken from Shakespeare, who, in Boito’s words, was a “spherical.”  In promoting Amleto, Boito wrote, “Today music is all opera....immense activity is concentrated around opera; all the fervid believers in art, all the brave supporters of progress cooperate in this solemn activity. [...] Opera is the greatest thing in music; Shakespeare is the greatest in musical drama.  Impressive sign! ...  Good, then art is uplifted.  ...  If today musical drama ventures to touch Shakespeare, it is a sure sign that today musical drama is worthy of Shakespeare....”    Boito seems to have meant that the most prominent art form of the time (opera) should have great models for the musical drama and not the kind of lesser melodrama and popular novels and plays so often used as the basis for nineteenth century opera libretti.  Shakespeare, in other words, is worthy of treatment in the noblest of musical arts--opera.  Boito himself was continuously working on his own opera Mefistofele in those years, and it is based on another great literary work, Goethe’s Faust, but when it premiered at La Scala in 1868, it was a complete fiasco--too Wagnerian, many claimed.  The scapigliati were no doubt discouraged by the reception of a major work by a leader of the movement, but they regrouped and determined to have Amleto mounted at La Scala as an example of the operatic reforms they wanted to achieve.

Faccio and Boito both worked to revise the libretto and the music.  In Genoa, one criticism had been that the work was not melodic enough.  Boito cut the libretto here and there and Faccio strove to introduce more traditional Italian melody to the work.  Finally, it was introduced at La Scala on February 12, 1871.  The premiere had been postponed because the tenor (Hamlet) got sick and just before the new date of the premiere, he got sick again.  It was a Hamlet without a Hamlet; in parts, the tenor simply did not sing.  Amleto was a fiasco, and was withdrawn after a single performance.  Discouraged, Faccio withdrew the score, and no printed score was ever made.  From that day on, Amleto has not been seen or heard--until now.

Faccio never wrote another opera, but went in the direction of conducting instead, which turned out to be a true calling.  Before long he was La Scala’s principal conductor, and gradually Verdi reconciled with him.  He conducted the first performances of Simon Boccanegra in Italy and the Italian premiere of Aida.  Later, he would conduct the world premiere of Otello.  He also conducted the first Italian performances of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger.  Boito made extensive revisions to Mefistofele, and the revised version premiered in Bologna in 1875 to acclaim; he continued to tinker with it until a definitive edition was reached in 1881.  But composing was difficult for him; his only other surviving opera is the unfinished Nerone.  When it was premiered posthumously in 1924, it had been completed by Toscanini and others.  Boito’s greatest fame lies in his literary work for Verdi’s last two operas, both based on Shakespeare.  Franco Faccio would have probably conducted the world premiere of Verdi’s Falstaff too, but by that time his mental capacity was failing.  Like Donizetti before him, he went mad, possibly the final effect of syphilis; he died in 1891 in Monza, his hometown, today a suburb of Milan.

So Faccio's score with Boito's libretto languished for well over 130 years until Anthony Barrese got interested in it because he had read about it in relation to Verdi and to the Scaplgliatura movement.  He discovered that the only existing score was the crumbling original manuscript in the archives of the Ricordi publishing house in Milan. Painstakingly he copied the score, note by note, and created a performing edition, and thus Amleto has come to Albuquerque.  It was undoubtedly a work of love on Barrese's part, but the question has always been, 'was the opera worth it?'  Now we can answer with a resounding "yes!"  This is not just a work of interest to academics which increases our knowledge of Verdi's competitors and colleagues, but a work which is fully worthy on its own, an exciting work of musical theater.  In Albuquerque it is likely that it will play to three sold out houses, and this is an opera no one alive had ever heard.  I trust that for this Amleto, the rest will not be silence.

 

More information on the Opera Southwest Amleto Project including an essay by Philip Gossett may be found at http://www.operasouthwest.org/amleto

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