The opera’s the thing
Amleto, Opera Southwest Journal Theatre, National Hispanic Cultural Center, Oct. 26
Composer Franco Faccio unveiled his opera Amleto (Hamlet) in 1865 to lukewarm listeners in Genoa, and in 1871 he revised it for another go in Milan, where it did not survive beyond its opening night. The rest was silence … until last Sunday afternoon, when this long-forgotten work received an enthusiastic staging, its first in 143 years, through the graces of Opera Southwest in Albuquerque.
This venture was a testament to the devotion of Anthony Barrese, the company’s artistic director, who learned of the piece’s existence in 2002 and spent the next dozen years working from manuscripts in Italian archives to prepare a modern performance edition based on the 1871 version. Such a project would not seem unusual behind the ivy-covered walls of academe, where the resultant reconstruction would fester among other unnoticed dissertations. Pursuing it in the real world, with the goal of making the piece live and breathe in front of a paying audience, seems quixotic in comparison, but it is precisely the sort of venture to which musicology should aspire. It was an ambitious undertaking, a fully staged presentation in Italian (with English translations projected) involving a cast of 16, a 34-member chorus, four dancers, a half-dozen supernumeraries, and a full pit orchestra, with Barrese marshaling all from the podium. A single two-story set of handsome metalwork served ably in each of the four acts, with a light overlay of projections and stage decorations (here a bed, there an arras) lending specificity to the dire events that unroll in the castle of Elsinore.
The libretto was drawn from Shakespeare’s play by Faccio’s schoolmate Arrigo Boito, who is most remembered for the Bard-based librettos he would later produce for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff and for his own opera Mefistofele (for which he wrote both the music and libretto). Hamlet is one of the longest and richest of Shakespeare’s plays, and turning it into a serviceable libretto required acres of selective pruning. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead to Faccio and Boito. Elusive Fortinbras similarly disappears, and Polonius is a shadow of his former self. Boito shuffled Shakespeare’s episodes like a deck of cards to make a cogent narrative. He retained most of the scenes without which Hamlet would not be Hamlet; imagine how disappointed viewers would be if they were not regaled with expanses like “Essere o non essere” or “Ohimè, povero Yorick.” He essentially turned Shakespeare’s sprawling masterpiece into a well-made play that aligned with 19th-century taste. Sacrificed in the bargain is psychological depth. Hamlet seems neither indecisive nor crazy, but rather the clear-headed organizer of a scheme that unfolds according to a logical plan. In a program note, stage director David Bartholomew explains that he and set designer Carey Wong moved the action from ancient Denmark to the early 20th century, “the peak of the age of Freudian analysis,” in order “to explore the inner complexity of the opera’s personages.” That did not come across in the performance, perhaps to the production’s benefit. One did not sense that the characters’ complexities run very deep in Faccio and Boito’s telling.
Although the mid-19th century is acclaimed as a summit of Italian opera, it is represented on the stage almost exclusively through the works of Verdi. Apart from Boito’s Mefistofele (1868), the only coeval opera to hold a place on the boards is Ponchielli’s deliciously gruesome La Gioconda ( 1876). Opera flourished throughout Italy at the time, but where can we turn today to experience less-than-Verdi operas by such contemporaries as Pedrotti, Petrella, Usiglio, and Marchetti? By producing Faccio’s Amleto, Opera Southwest has revivified a score that provides payback of its own while reminding opera-lovers precisely what Verdi is “a cut above.”
The high point of Amleto is indisputably the funeral procession (Act 4, Scene 1), which unrolls with scenebuilding momentum. The corpse of Ofelia (Ophelia) is borne in by the king and courtiers to an extended, mournful orchestral strain, interesting in its twists of melody and harmony. This cedes to an angry confrontation between Amleto (her boyfriend) and Laerte (Laertes, her brother), after which the processional music returns, with the chorus now adding its voice, the whole yielding a well-formed chapter with dramatic impetus. Elsewhere, the most effective scenes were duet confrontations — the conversation between Amleto and Lo spettro (the Ghost of his father) in Act 1 and between Amleto and Ofelia in Act 2 — and the Act 2 finale, in which the performance of the play unveils murderous Claudio (King Claudius) while the onlookers soar to a stentorian climax. Apart from these, scenes often displayed piecemeal construction — competent but unmemorable bits being strung together. Amleto’s soliloquies suffer from a start-and-stop character; they consist of good sentences but don’t really build into compelling musical paragraphs. Faccio doesn’t always appropriate operatic clichés convincingly. The opening party scene, for example, seems to merely parrot La traviata, which (unlike Amleto) was an opera in which throwing parties was central to the plot.
Tenor Alex Richardson scored a success in the title role. His ample voice was secure and firmly projected, a touch nasal in the opening acts but growing more round toward the end. He secured the audience’s sympathetic attention by keeping his acting direct and to the point, an asset some of the other principals might have emulated to their profit. He seems well placed to climb the operatic ladder. Two other tenors also acquitted themselves with distinction. As Laerte, Javier González proved an appealing singer of what I take to be the tenore di grazia sort (although the role does not make demands in the upper reaches of that range) — a light voice rather than a large one, appealing in its brightness and capable of precise articulation. Lighter still was Jonathan Charles Tay, in the modest roles of Il Re Gonzaga (the “Player King”) and a Herald; his voice is small but sweet, his pitch is spot on, and the early-music community should not delay scooping him up. Bass Jeffrey Beruan, as Lo spettro, recounted his regicide with an appealing tone, soft-grained and inherently gentle. (Faccio must have liked Rigoletto, since its ominous orchestral shivers underscore the Ghost’s appearances.) The other principals — sopranos Abla Lynn Hamza as Ofelia and Caroline Worra as Geltrude (Gertrude), baritone Shannon De Vine as Claudio — seemed to have found their appropriate regional-opera level in this outing. Obvious strengths notwithstanding, their performances might have benefited from greater subtlety in the areas of dramatic portrayal (Hamza), that and tone color (Worra), and intonation (De Vine). The real hero of this Amleto was Barrese, who made the most of his resources while pulling off a creditable and enlightening production.
“Amleto” continues at Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center on Friday, Oct. 31, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 2, at 2 p.m.; for tickets, call 505-243-0591 or visit www.operasouthwest.org.
Abla Lynn Hamza and Alex Richardson