Historians rank Otello and Falstaff as two of the greatest operas, and many theatergoers feel they are superior to the plays on which they were based, Othello and The Merry Wives of Windsor (with additions from Henry IV Part One).
No wonder, then, the discovery of a long-lost Shakespeare adaptation by Arrigo Boito has caused excitement. This time the music is not by Giuseppe Verdi, but by Franco Faccio, interesting in his own right.
Boito and Faccio were young graduates of the Milan conservatory who wrote a manifesto advocating a modernization of Italian opera in 1861. Their timing was opportune; the Kingdom of Italy had just been proclaimed and change was in the air. Faccio was 21 years old, and Boito 19. Both young men wanted Italian arts to reflect the new reality that Italy was an independent nation on a level with Great Britain and France. This led to their belief that Italian music and theater could embrace the work of England’s greatest playwright, Shakespeare.
Instead of showing off voices, they advocated greater use of the orchestra and called for more emphasis on serious drama.
Buried by a terrible tenor
At the La Scala Milan premiere of their Hamlet (Amleto in Italian) the tenor in the title role was ill. He lowered pitches at will, omitted notes, and the whole performance was disorganized. The angry composer felt betrayed by the opera company and refused to allow any further performances. Faccio went on to a career as a conductor, while Boito became Verdi’s writing partner.
The young conductor/musicologist Anthony Barrese heard about the lost opera and searched until he found a faint, almost-unreadable piano/vocal manuscript in Faccio’s hand. He eventually found orchestral parts and reconstructed the entire score.
The result is no idle curiosity. A potentially important addition to the repertory of major opera houses, it relies less on catchy vocal melodies than do typical 19th-century Italian operas, and more on a meshing of voices with orchestra and attention to drama. This is a “newness of form,” as Boito and Faccio touted their collaboration.
Yet it’s not so “new” that it’s intimidating. There are hummable arias and duets, with an addition of lovely orchestral passages emphasizing woodwinds and the lower strings. The vocal writing isn’t frilly and trilly, but sounds more like extended speech — what Italians call parlando. It’s somewhat similar to the operas of Mascagni, Giordano and Puccini, but this was written decades earlier.
Boito stuck closely to Shakespeare’s drama instead of reshaping it to fit the conventions of the time as Ambroise Thomas did with his Hamlet three years later. Thomas’s French opera omitted many characters, and Ophelia ludicrously stabbed herself to death instead of drowning.
On the other hand, Boito and Faccio gave us a “To be or not to be” aria, “O what a rogue,” “Alas, poor Yorick,” and many other faithful versions of Hamlet’s (Joshua Kohl) soliloquies. Hamlet’s confrontation with his mother in her bedroom makes a terrific duet. The first half ends with the famous “mousetrap” scene in which Hamlet hires a troupe of traveling players to perform a drama of a queen and her lover poisoning her husband the king, just as he believes Queen Gertrude (Lara Tillotson) and her paramour Claudius (Timothy Mix) did to Hamlet’s father.
Here, an onstage string quartet accompanies the players. Claudius reveals his guilt as Hamlet sings “The mousetrap has worked,” bringing down the curtain for the intermission.
Boito and Faccio added some material that works surprisingly well. After Hamlet confronts his mother, they are joined by the ghost of his father (Ben Wager), visible to Hamlet and to the audience but not to Gertrude. They sing a dramatic trio in which the deceased king urges Hamlet to avenge his murder.
The writing team added an aria of anger and regret by Gertrude, and Ophelia’s (Sarah Asmar) death is followed by a funeral march that allows the chorus to sing a melancholy dirge.
As in Shakespeare, everything depends on Hamlet, so we can see why the malfunction of that tenor at La Scala doomed their production. Kohl is appealing as Hamlet and sings with a youthful voice enriched by the bright edge called “squillo.” The role goes no higher than B-flat, so Kohl has to make his points with expression and vocal color rather than trying to dazzle audiences with high notes.
Ballet dancers add luster to the scenes at court. E. Loren Meeker’s direction of Hamlet’s duel with Laertes (Matthew Vickers) leads to a satisfyingly violent ending. Both theater lovers and music lovers should enjoy this rediscovered gem.