229. Amleto (Faccio)

  • Tragedia lirica in 4 acts
  • Composer: Franco Faccio
  • Libretto: Arrigo Boito, after Shakespeare
  • First performed: Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa, 30th May 1865, conducted by Angelo Mariani

AMLETO, Prince of DenmarkTenorMario Tiberini
CLAUDIO, King of DenmarkBaritoneAntonio Cotogni
POLONIO, Lord ChamberlainBassCesare Sonino
ORAZIO, Amleto’s friendBassAntonio Furlani
MARCELLO, officialBassAlessandro Romanelli
LAERTE, Polonio’s sonTenorNapoleone Sinigaglia
OFELIA, Polonio’s daughterSopranoAngiolina Ortolani-Tiberini
GELTRUDE, Queen of Denmark, Amleto’s motherMezzoElena Corani
THE GHOSTBassEraclito Bagagiolo
A PriestBassUnknown
A HeraldTenorAngelo Rocca
KING GONZAGA, an actorTenorNapoleone Sinigaglia
THE QUEEN, an actressSopranoAngelina Borotti
LUCIANO, an actorBassAlessandro Romanelli
First GravediggerBassEraclito Bagagiolo
Second GravediggerMuteUnknown
Courtiers, Ladies, Officials, Soldiers, PeopleChorus 

SETTING: Elsinore, Denmark

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Franco Faccio’s first opera had flopped, but Arrigo Boito believed that here was the composer who would reform Italian opera. In his Ode saffica col bicchiere alla mano (Sapphic Ode, with Glass in Hand), Boito declared that Faccio was “destined to cleanse the altar of art now befouled like the walls of a brothel”.

And Verdi, the most popular opera composer in Italy, took umbrage.

In later years, both Boito and Faccio would become Verdi’s associates: Boito wrote the libretti for his two last operas, Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893), and Faccio conducted the Italian première of Aida (1871), the world première of Otello, and the revised versions of La forza del destino (1862) and Don Carlo (1867).

But in the early 1860s, Faccio and Boito were hot-headed young intellectuals and iconoclasts, members of the Scapigliatura (“dishevelled ones”, or Bohemians), and they were fed up with conventions. Boito held that Italian opera was formulaic (aria, rondò, cabaletta, stretta, ritornello, pezzo concertato); that all libretti were poor; and that one could not write good music to them. He believed composers should follow the examples of Meyerbeer (“whose works, once appreciated, caused Italian operas to collapse by the hundreds like the bricks of the walls of Jericho: most of Bellini’s, the greater part of Donizetti’s, almost all Rossini’s … and some of Verdi’s” – he was right, of course) and Wagner. (For more information, see Julian Budden.)

Amleto, Olaf A. Schmitt states, was to be a new form of Italian opera, with a more equal relationship between libretto and music. And it was by the sublime Shakespeare.

“The sublime is simpler than the beautiful,” Boito stated. “The beautiful can incarnate itself in all sorts of forms, the most strange, the most multiple, the most disparate; but for the sublime only one great form is fitting – the divine form, universal, eternal – the spherical form. The horizon is sublime, the sea is sublime, the sun is sublime. Shakespeare is spherical, Dante is spherical, Beethoven is spherical; the sun is simpler than a carnation, the sea simpler than a brook…” (In Budden)

(That may be why he wrote Falstaff: who could be more spherical than Fat Jack?)

Act I set, La Scala, Milan, 1871

Boito’s libretto does an effective job of compressing Shakespeare’s play, his longest, into little over two hours (half the original’s running time). It consists of eight scenes: the banquet, and the apparition of the ghost on the battlements of Elsinore (Act I); “To be or not to be” / “Get thee to a nunnery”, and the play within a play (Act II); the chapel scene, the murder of Polonius, and Ofelia’s mad scene (Act III); the gravediggers (“Alas, poor Yorick!”) and the fencing scene (Act IV). No Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Fortinbras, or Osric.

Much of Amleto is through-composed and declamatory – too much so, contemporaries thought; they objected to “too little melody” and “too much recitative”. The Rossinian structures that Verdi inherited and adapted are buried. Instead, the phrase, the line, determines Faccio’s approach, not pre-existing forms.

The first scene shows the collaborators’ determination to avoid the conventional. It’s called an Introduzione; normally, one would expect a chorus of Danish courtiers: some rejoicing at Claudio’s coronation and marriage to Geltrude, others lamenting the death of Amleto senior. But Boito and Faccio don’t do that. After a brief prelude – a majestic fanfare, very “English”, very noble – the chorus sing a single line (“Viva il re!”), then it’s straight into declamation: Claudio offers a toast, Amleto hates his life. The chorus serves as backing throughout the scene. While we get snatches of dance music in the background (as in Rigoletto), there’s nothing like a set number – the king’s brindisi – until 10 minutes later. Faccio, incidentally, achieves a nice effect by setting conversations against each other (as Verdi did): Laerte and Polonio talk about the arrival of the actors in Rossinian patter, while Marcello and Orazio describe to Hamlet the apparition of the ghost.

Opera acts normally ended with a concertato ensemble – often the most developed number in the score – but again Faccio avoids these: the Act I finale, Amleto making his friends swear to keep shtum about the ghost, is too short and undeveloped to be called a trio; while Act II, The Mousetrap bit, ends with several pages of sung dialogue; the ensemble is much earlier in the scene.

Boito also strove to avoid the hackneyed in his poetry; Budden notes that he broke up the set patterns of Italian libretti – what Boito called “the tedium of cantilena of symmetry, of that mighty dowry and mighty sin of Italian prosody which generates a meanness and poverty of rhythm within the musical phrase” – “through a much freer intermingling of verse types, and always with a dramatic justification”. Thus, Budden explains, the ghost speaks in hendecasyllables and the terza rima of Dante, “as befits a spirit from Hell or Purgatory”; the King and courtiers carouse in decasyllables; Amleto’s soliloquy is in Shakespearean blank verse; in Amleto’s duet with Ofelia (Act II), Amleto’s “feigned madness is in a curiously accented jerky design of quinary, to which Ofelia replies with orthodox senari” (Ofelia sings in operatic melody, Amleto declaims in recitative); and Ofelia’s mad scene is in rhyming couplets.

For all its innovation, or avoidance of convention, the score is uneven. The orchestration is excellent, more sophisticated than bel canto or much of Verdi; its attention to detail recalls French opera. Listen, for instance, to the shimmering textures of Ofelia’s mad scene. But how the words fit the music and how the music sits in the voice often seem slightly off, or a challenge to the singers. Faccio seems to have grown more confident, and more inspired, in the last two acts, which contain many of the best (and most “operatic”) pieces: a powerful trio in Geltrude’s bedroom with the ghost, after the murder of Polonio; Geltrude’s scena; the prelude to Ofelia’s mad scene; the mad scene itself; and the funeral march of Ofelia, a wintry theme that grows in force, and becomes a choral elegy. The music for the fencing scene, though, is perfunctory.

Act III set, La Scala, Milan, 1871

The Revue et gazette musicale (11 June 1865) called Amleto “a succès d’estime, supported by a vigorous claque and the partisans of the music of the future, who arrived from Milan expressly for this”. A fortnight later (25th June), the same journal reported that the theatre was empty on the fourth performance, so the director of the Teatro Carlo-Felice did not give it any more. “Once the Milan applauders left, the score appeared in all its nudity, and its sentence was pronounced. La Tiberini [presumably the soprano Angiolina Ortolani-Tiberini] did not want it for her benefit, and preferred [Rossini’s] Matilde di Shabran, despite its date [1821]. Moreover, she did well, for never had such a triumph greeted her. It was a shower of bouquets of all shapes, and most gallantly adorned.”

Alberto Muzzacato, the music teacher who trained Boito (and Gomes and Zajc), praised the opera’s “truth of conception, the newness of forms, the passion of the melodies, the ensemble harmony, and the robust skill that dominates the whole scene”. But Angelo Mariani, a composer and conductor, wrote to Verdi during rehearsals: “It’s a pity that what is good in the opera isn’t new, and what is new is a little boring… Faccio is a good musician, his scoring is extremely well calculated, he harmonises with elegance, but it’s all rather heavy, too much licked into shape and even too prolix.”

Amleto was revived (and revised) at La Scala, Milan, in February 1871. The first night was a fiasco: the tenor, Mario Tiberini, had lost his voice, and Faccio refused to ever have the opera performed again. It was not given for 150 years, until Anthony Barrese prepared a critical edition of the score, and conducted it in Baltimore and Albuquerque, USA, in 2014. The opera has since been performed at the Bregenz Festspiele in 2016; a recording was published by Naxos.

While Ambroise Thomas’s 1868 grand opéra, despite the happy ending, seems the best of the 19th century adaptations of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Faccio’s version has much to commend it. The rest is silence.


Listen to: Pavel Černoch (Amleto), Iulia Maria Dan (Ofelia), Claudio Sgura (Claudio), Dshamilja Kaiser (Geltrude), Eduard Tsanga (Polonio), Paul Schweinester (Laerte), with the Prague Philharmonic Choir and Wiener Symphoniker, conducted by Paolo Carignani, Bregenz, Austria, 2016; Naxos 8660454-55, 2019. (DVD also available.)

Works consulted

  • Anthony Barrese, Amleto – Vocal Score, Ricordi.
  • Julian Budden, The Operas of Verdi, Volume 2: From Il Trovatore to La Forza del destino, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
  • Dyneley Hussey, The Master Musicians: Verdi, London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1973
  • Olaf A. Schmitt, “Hamlet on the Altar of Art”, Naxos, 2019.
  • Revue et gazette musicale de Paris, 11th and 25th June 1865
  • Interview with Anthony Barrese, OperaLounge.de

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