Faccio’s Amleto in Verona

Franco Faccio is a name unfamiliar to modern opera-goers. In the second half of the 19th century, he was best known as a conductor, but he also wrote some stage works and the fact that he was a good friend of Arrigo Boito aided him in this task. He was born in Verona, a fact which helps to explain why the first modern Italian performance of Amleto should be given in that city. Dating from 1865, this is one of many operatic versions of Hamlet, and you might have thought that collaboration with Boito as librettist (admittedly long before his outstanding texts for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff) would have ensured some degree of success. It was reasonably well received at its premiere, but soon thereafter disappeared from the scene.

Those who know and love their Shakespeare can easily find fault with it. It tries far too hard to squeeze the structure of the play into the demands of Verdian grand opera, with its need for large choral scenes, display arias for big voices and a sentimental love interest. So, the work begins with a mass celebration of the kingship of Claudius. In due course, all the principal characters are given important solo arias and Ophelia, as Hamlet’s apparent lover, is elevated in importance: her funeral, peopled with the large chorus, is a highlight of the work. My Italian is not good enough to judge the fidelity or quality of Boito’s text – apart from Essere o non essere which seemed to be close to the original monologue – but I suspect that in the early 1860s he was insufficiently mature to impose his own style on the contemporary operatic conventions. What is clear, however, is that with judicious cuts and alterations, he was able to retain the main features of the play’s plot.

What then of the Verona performance? Conductor Giuseppe Grazioli made as much of the score as might reasonably be expected, with its sweeping melodies and exuberant rhythms, and the chorus, coached by veteran Roberto Gabbiani were enthusiastically tuneful. Paolo Valeri, aided by the imaginative abstract decors designed by Ezio Antonelli, offered a production which served well the grand opera model; Hamlet’s encounter with the Ghost was beautifully staged and the presentation of Gonzago’s murder by the players was rendered particularly effective through the adoption of puppetry technique. However, anyone looking for the deeper meaning of Hamlet’s plight would have been disappointed. All the mystery and uncertainty in the original gave way to in-your-face bluster and declamation. While most of the soloists had voices well suited to the mid-19th century musical style, they did not excel in subtlety. This was especially true of Samuele Simoncini’s Hamlet. Blessed with a truly magnificent tenor voice, with volume and richness of tone ideal for Verdi’s Otello, his belting out of the hero’s arias in explosions of anger, frustration and sought-for revenge, completely neglected the frailty, sensitivity and weakness in Shakespeare’s conception of the hero.