The opera’s the thing

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Reviews - — James M. Keller

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

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