In 1865, the composer Franco Faccio led the premiere of his opera “Amleto” — Hamlet — in Genoa, Italy. Faccio and his friends, including the writer/composer Arrigo Boito, who wrote the libretto, wanted to challenge the status quo and create an opera that moved past conventions. “Amleto,” though anticipated dubiously, was received well — enough to be revived at La Scala in 1871. That performance, however, was a disaster. Faccio went on to become a major conductor and champion of Verdi’s, leading the first performance of “Otello” — another Shakespeare work with a Boito libretto. “Amleto,” however, was largely forgotten.
It was not performed again, in fact, for 143 years — until the Baltimore Concert Opera did so at the Engineers Club in Baltimore on Thursday night.
Anthony Barrese, a conductor and composer, started trying to track down the “Amleto” score in 2003, and he laboriously transcribed the music from a microfilm of a badly faded copy. The production that he led Thursday was akin to a MIDI file: played on a single piano, with variable levels of singing, it required a lot of imagination to make out the outlines of a proper orchestral performance. For Barrese and some of the singers, the evening was a kind of dress rehearsal: they are giving a staged production at Opera Southwest in Albuquerque at the end of this month. For me, at least, it was tantalizing. I would be happy to hear “Amleto” again.
At the very least, Faccio represents a missing link between Verdi and the verismo composers of the century’s end. “Amleto” is filled with melody, but freed from the ironclad traditions of arias and cabalettas; the “Essere o non essere” scene (you knew there had to be a “to be or not to be” moment) is as much dramatic monologue as aria per se.
There are, to be sure, ensembles (including a trio for Hamlet, Gertrude and his father’s ghost) and there are more conventional arias. There are Italian-opera moments of bouncy party music and sad funerary music. But Ofelia’s mad scene, in its wistful tuneful simplicity, presages the final scene of Verdi’s Desdemona far more than it derives from the histrionics of Donizetti’s Lucia.
Also good sport, for opera fans, is watching Boito embarking on the first of his Shakespeare projects (he adapted two more plays for Verdi). Hamlet’s musings on the finality of death anticipate Iago’s fiercer, more nihilistic “Credo.”
The singing was not great, though some of the singers gained in ease and flexibility over the three-hour evening. Alex Richardson, the tenor who sang Amleto, lost some of his tight, forced sound as he warmed up and was downright authoritative by the end; and the baritone Shannon De Vine, frankly not very good in his first scenes as Claudio/Claudius, pulled himself together for a credible aria at the beginning of Act III. Abla Lynn Hamza was vocally pale and wobbly as Ofelia, and Caroline Worra, as Geltrude [sic], had a shrill edge to her sound. Rolando Sanz was luxury casting in the smaller tenor role of Laerte.
The whole performance, though, should more properly be heard as a rehearsal, with the (quite good) chorus marching in and out through the audience, and the singers crowded onto a small stage, singing music that may not have quite been in their voices yet, while Michael Dauphinais exerted himself nobly at the piano. If Opera Southwest were closer, I’d go again. And while I don’t claim that “Amleto” is the greatest forgotten work of the 19th century, I hope that Maestro Barrese’s efforts will be rewarded with future performances.
Opera Southwest will present “Amleto” on Oct. 26, Oct. 31 and Nov. 2 in Albuquerque.