Faccio’s Surprisingly Good “Amleto”

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FACCIO: Amleto / Pavel Černoch, ten (Amleto); Iulia Maria Dan, sop (Ofelia); Paul Schweinester, ten (Laerte); Edouard Tsanga, bs (Polonio); Dshamilja Kaiser, mez (Gertrude); Claudio Sgura, bar (Claudio); Bartosz Urnabowicz, bar (Marcello); Sébastian Soules, bs (Orazio); Gianluca Burarro, bs (Ghost); Yasushi Hirano, bs (Gravedigger); Prague Philharmonic Choir; Wiener Symphoniker; Paolo Carignani, cond / Naxos 8.660454-55 (live: Bregenz, June 2016)

Franco Faccio (1840-1891) has been, until a few years ago, little more than a footnote in operatic history, known primarily for being the conductor of the premiere of Verdi’s Otello, but this opera has become a bit of a cause célèbre in recent years. A younger colleague of Arrigo Boito at the Milan Conservatory where they became good friends, both embarked on writing a first opera upon graduation. Boito’s eventually became Mefistofele but, typical of this composer, he spent several years refining it prior to its premiere. In the meantime, Faccio wrote I profughi fiamminghi which had an unsuccessful premiere at La Scala in November 1863. Undaunted, Faccio launched into work on Amleto with the libretto (and, one would guess, some of the music) by Boito, which premiered in Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice in May 1865. The audience complained of the score’s “paucity of melody,” but the critics liked it immensely, praising Faccio’s music and especially Boito’s libretto, and after the second and third performances the public began to warm up to its dramatic flair. Faccio revived the opera in 1871, at which point he was director of La Scala, but after that it disappeared from the boards. Conductor Anthony Barrese, however, created a critical edition of the opera which was premiered by Opera Southwest in 2014, and two years later conductor Paolo Carignani gave this performance of it at Opera Bregenz. Prior to this audio-only release, this performance was available as a DVD released by C Major.

As was usual for Boito, he made a brilliant operatic reduction of Shakespeare’s sprawling play, which in this instance begins with the king’s coronation and the merrymaking of the populace. The musical style and harmonic language are by no means as advanced as Verdi’s Don Carlo, Otello or Falstaff; this was 1865, after all, a period in which Verdi’s “middle period” operas were still the rage. Yet even in this opening scene, a prologue, one can hear that the prelude lacks that “zip-a-dee-doo-dah” style so much in favor in those years (just think of the Forza del Destino overture of 1862), and even during this early merrymaking scene Faccio uses a great deal more chromatic harmonic changes than was usual in that time. Much of Hamlet’s music, even here, is dramatic recitative and not terribly tuneful music; even when the rhythm suddenly shifts to an almost tarantella-like 6/8 to represent the festivities, Hamlet is still singing occasional strophic lines rather than bursting into song à la the Duke of Mantua. When he finally does sing melodic lines, yet the scene does end melodically in a peppy waltz tune.

The opening of the first act features the first of the Ophelia-Hamlet duets. Soprano Iulia Maria Dan has a typically edgy-sounding Eastern European voice, complete with the usual overripe vibrato and high notes than thin out the tone, but she does have a good legato, excellent diction and sings expressively. Baritone Claudio Sgura, as Claudio, has a wobbly voice—what else is new nowadays? I’ll be damned if I can figure out why casting directors can’t do a better job of picking singers for these important projects. I know for a fact that there are dozens of better sopranos and baritones out there than these two, but here we are, stuck with inferior voices. As for Pavel Černoch, our intrepid Melancholy Dane, he has a generally fine voice without too much flutter and a generally good timbre, somewhat similar to one of the most underrated tenors of the 1960s, Robert Ilosfalvy (now there’s a name from the past for you!) and he, too, sings with commitment and drama. Dshamilja Kaiser, as Gertrude, also has a somewhat fluttery Eastern European voice, but her tone is more solid from top to bottom and her high notes are not overparted.

What I particularly liked about the music, however, is that Faccio wrote continuous scenes. There are “solo bits” sung by Claudio, Gertrude, Ofelio and Amleto, but they aren’t “stop-the-show-so-you-can-admire-us” arias, and they don’t have superfluous high notes. By the time we reach the scene beginning “Prence – Signor,” we can hear Faccio refining his style still further, using dark-sounding low winds and thumping basses to underscore the vocal line, and even when the tempo suddenly quickens and the chorus enters, the music continues to develop, almost as in a string quartet or a symphony.

It is in Act I, Part II that the music becomes even deeper, opening with a slow passage played by the cellos that surprisingly resembles what Verdi would do several years later in “Ella giammai m’amo” from Don Carlo, and even when the tempo picks up and the tenor enters with a sort of arioso, it, too, is closer to the kind of music that Don Carlo sings in Verdi’s opera. (The publicity blurb for this album claims that the music “strikingly prefigures the verismo operas yet to come,” but not really—at least, not as much as Ponchielli’s La Gioconda prefigured verismo.) And finally, we encounter another good voice besides the tenor, bass Gianluca Burarro as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. If he continues to sing like this, he is destined for stardom. This passage with the Ghost and Hamlet is very interesting, both musically and dramatically.

Act II opens with rapid but quirky music which heralds the entrance of Polonio, Claudio and Gertrude before Amleto enters to sing “Essere o non essere,” or “To be or not to be.” Well, of course I was waiting to hear this, and yes, it’s somewhat in Italian aria form, but more like Rigoletto’s “Pari siamo.” There are some high notes, but they come at dramatic points and don’t disrupt the musical development but, rather, enhance it. Except for one rather strained, unsteady high note, Černoch does a very fine job on it. There are also some interesting harmonic changes here and there that mark this as the work of a well-trained composer, which Faccio was. The ensuing duet with Ofelia is also very good; despite being set to a barcarolle rhythm, Faccio uses minor-key harmonies and tries to maintain drama and dignity in the vocal line. A shame that our soprano is so squally; I can just hear, in my mind’s ear, the voice of Sondra Radvanosky soaring through these lines. And someone please explain to me why Sondra Radvanosky is not on more complete opera recordings. But what a great piece of music this is! You cannot, for a second, predict where the music is going; there’s nothing formulaic about it, yet it keeps developing, becoming more dramatic, with each passing moment. And even when it’s over, Polonio enters, and the music tries to put up a false happy front, Faccio is up to those demands as well.

There are also some interesting harmonic shifts in the beginning of the next scene, the “Gran Marcia Danese,” which then again becomes more serious (with interesting high strings and harp accompaniment) in the Amleto-Gertrude duet. In the ensuing ensemble scene, Faccio uses some very creative cross-rhythms, not unlike the Act I finale of Don Giovanni, but more modern. Towards the end of the scene, he uses rising chromatics, rolling timpani and swirling strings to create real dramatic tension behind the singers.

More dark-sounding music, played lightly by the basses, violas and winds, opens Act III. The music here is also quite dramatic, combining Italian lyricism with a quite dramatic interpretation of the scene. Again, Faccio used interesting falling chromatics in Gertrude’s lines, and interesting cymbal “washes” behind the re-appearance of the Ghost. Ofelia’s mad scene is a bit of a disappointment—she just sings a fairly conventional aria and ends on a trill—but it’s a huge improvement on the bel canto “mad scene” of Ambroise Thomas. In one section, you hear a typical Boito wind voicing behind Ofelia, similar to that used in the Prologue of Mefistofele.

The last act is equally good and equally interesting, despite some fairly ordinary secco recitative between Amleto and the Gravedigger. Ofelia’s funeral march is, unfortunately, nothing special, in one ear and out the other, but at least it’s not offensive. The scenes following return us to very good, interesting music, with great climaxes when called for. The play-within-a-play is somewhat minimized in this performance but the ending is particularly good, subtle and understated, with good vocal acting from the principals.

Bottom line: it’s a very interesting opera defeated to a considerable extent by the defects of the singers—clearly superior to Thomas’ very stupid, bel canto-oriented Hamlet. If someone were to record it with first-class voices, it would be a real gem because the music is mostly good and dramatic. It should never have been neglected for more than 130 years, particularly when opera houses today keep reviving third-rate rubbish by Rossini and Donizetti. Alas, the only alternate performance is the one from Opera Southwest, available for free streaming on YouTube here, and damned if that cast didn’t have the same strengths and weakness as this one: an excellent conductor (Barrese), good tenor (Alex Richardson), so-so soprano (Abla Lynn Hamza, actually even weaker than Dan), a wobbly baritone (Shannon DeVine), a pretty good mezzo (Caroline Worra), etc. etc. I didn’t expect much of a smallish opera company in the Southwest U.S., but I certainly expected better of this production, particularly since it’s out on DVD. Well, you know the drill: in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. If you want Faccio’s Amleto, and it is clearly a very interesting opera, this is your only real choice, mostly because Dan has much better breath support and vocal control than Hamza.

Complaints have been made that the booklet doesn’t include the libretto, but surprise, surprise! You can find the complete libretto online, in both Italian and English, at http://anthonybarrese.com/projects/amleto-project/amleto-libretto/. You’re welcome.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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