WILMINGTON, Del. — Franco Faccio’s opera “Amleto,” based on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” languished for more than 130 years, from its fiasco at the Italian theater La Scala in 1871 to the early 2000s, when a young conductor named Anthony Barrese tracked down the score and started transcribing 900 pages of handwritten manuscript. His work paid off. “Amleto” had its modern debut in a 2014 concert performance in Baltimore, had its first full staging later that year at Opera Southwest, in Albuquerque, and, on Friday night, came to Opera Delaware in its staged East Coast premiere, before it moves to Austria this summer for the Bregenz Festival.
If you like Verdi, you will find much to like in “Amleto,” which — derivative though it may be, and far more an Italian opera than an evocation of Shakespeare — is just the kind of thing that Italian opera-lovers enjoy. Friday night’s performance, furthermore, turned out to be a tale of two happy endings. The other story is that of Opera Delaware, a little company that dealt with financial struggles by reinventing itself as an opera festival, which is debuting this year at the Grand Opera House, with “Amleto” and Verdi’s “Falstaff” (both with a libretto by Arrigo Boito) through May 22.
With only two full-time employees and an operating budget of $1.2 million, Opera Delaware mounted a solid production of “Amleto” (by E. Loren Meeker) with generic medieval costumes and an outstanding cast far better than many I’ve heard from companies with 20 times the funds. Throw in Barrese’s terrific conducting, and “Amleto” is not only a success story but an inspiration to anyone who equates “regional opera” with “yet another mediocre ‘La Bohème.’ ”
“Amleto” is not a forgotten masterpiece, but it is a fascinating view of a kind of missing link in Italian opera’s evolution from set pieces, such as fixed arias, to a more through-composed approach. It was also a strong effort by two very young men who would develop into much greater artists. (Faccio, though, achieved fame as a conductor; he never composed again.) The orchestration is filled with Verdian influences, including, to my ear, some anticipations of moments Verdi had not yet written: I heard foreshadowings of Desdemona, for instance, in the opening scene when Ofelia sings to Amleto in the midst of the festivities for Claudio and Geltrude’s wedding. This scene was arguably the most effective, all the more so given the radiant and robust singing of Sarah Asmar as Ofelia (showing no trace of an announced indisposition) and the strong, ringing, Italianate voice of the terrific Joshua Kohl as an Amleto who’s the archetypal angry young man of Italian opera.
There is plenty of adroit orchestral writing, with a heavy focus on beautiful solo instrumental lines introducing characters’ monologues (including, of course, “To be or not to be” and Ofelia’s mad scene, but also arias in which Claudio and Geltrude express their guilt, thereby stripping away the ambiguity that gives the Shakespeare play some of its power). There are also some missteps: a trio for Amleto, Geltrude (sung by a strong Lara Tillotson) and the ghost of Amleto’s father was a bit of an undistinguished stew of sound, and both Faccio and Boito had a tendency to dwell on their ideas a little too long. Faccio also didn’t have a particular gift for melody, but he tried his level best. (Matthew Vickers — in the short but strong tenor role of Laerte — and Harold Wilson, Justin Hopkins and José Sacin were among the other strong cast members. Casting directors, take note.)
When a company is in dire straits, artistic vision and excitement are a better way to recover than palpably playing it safe. Opera Delaware’s “Amleto” is an excellent illustration of this point. This fine production may not be enough to keep “Amleto” in the repertoire (though I’d rather hear it than, say, Ambroise Thomas’s “Hamlet”), but I hope it’s enough to keep Opera Delaware on the map.