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Forgotten opera 'Amleto' proves worthy of excavation

Is an opera about Hamlet last heard 143 years ago worth a new listen? Yep.

The first public hearing in 143 years of Franco Faccio's “Amleto,” presented Thursday night by Baltimore Concert Opera in the elegant ballroom of the Engineers Club, offered rewards and frustrations.

A more meaningful judgment on whether conductor Anthony Barrese's decade-plus effort to unearth this forgotten score was well worth it will be possible for those who get to hear the fully staged production he leads later this month at Opera Southwest in Albuquerque. That performance will have a crucial ingredient missing here — an orchestra.

When a familiar opera is performed in concert form with piano accompaniment, the ear can fill in the blanks. Having to guess in this case was one of the things that I put in the frustrating column.

Even so, Thursday's performance, the first in any form for "Amleto" in the United States, revealed that this "Hamlet"-inspired opera should not have been neglected for so long. After all, a mid-19th-century Italian opera does not need to be the equal of a Verdi masterpiece to deserve an airing.

You have to admire the valuable service Barrese has done just by shedding fresh light on the work and its creator.

Faccio clearly had talent, if bad luck, as a composer. "Amleto" premiered in Genoa in 1865 to so-so notices and, in revised form, had only one other performance. That was in Milan in 1871, when an ill tenor made a mess of the title role, which dragged the whole performance — and the composer's spirits — down.

That was the last anyone heard of "Amleto" until now. Had there been antibiotics back then, a whole different chapter of opera history just might have been written.

Faccio still gets his modest footnote in that history, since he conducted important premieres of works by Verdi and others, but I'd bet he would rather be known for "Amleto." (Maybe if the Milan staging had been a hit, Faccio wouldn't have ended up in an insane asylum.)

One of the things the composer had going for him was the help from his friend Arrigo Boito, who, as he would do years later for Verdi's Shakespeare-based operas, fashioned a sturdy libretto. The drama is clear, concise, respectful of the source.

As for the score, I wish it opened with something more atmospheric and portentous than a simple major chord, followed by a commonplace harmonic progression. And, while I'm nitpicking, there are quite a few clunky and formulaic recitative passages along the way, although the same can be said of some famous Italian operas.

What counts is that, much of the time, Faccio's music offers solidly crafted, often stirring melodic lines that communicate text vividly and are fueled by a strong sense of rhythmic motion. The mad scene and subsequent funeral march for Ofelia (the Italianized Ophelia) are among the most imaginatively crafted passages.

Some of the arias, especially the impassioned "To be or not to be" soliloquy, would surely find favor with singers today. And the best of the ensemble scenes, such as the Act 2 finale when Amleto's scheme to unnerve his dastardly uncle starts to work, pack considerable punch. (Faccio let that particular scene run out of musical steam at the end, but it still shows off his skill.)

Barrese's intense conducting, which combined momentum and expressive breadth, made it easy to appreciate the score’s finer points. This was true even when the singing was spotty, or when pianist Michael Dauphinais hit bumpy patches.

The cast featured some artists who will perform in the Opera Southwest production, including Alex Richardson as Amleto. The tenor sounded a little gruff around the edges at times, but was well inside the role and shaped his music in ardent, affecting fashion.

(In the Act 3 trio, another of the score's highlights, Richardson might want to rethink his cry of surprise at the appearance of the ghost for Sunday's repeat performance; on Friday, it set off titters in the audience.)

Caroline Worra was a terrific force as Amleto's duplicitous mother Geltrude (Gertrude). The stellar soprano's richly vibrant singing, complete with gleaming top notes and beautifully nuanced dynamics, elevated the whole evening considerably. If she threatened to go over the top in her Act 3 aria, it sure was fun hearing her tear up the joint.

Abla Lynn Hamza, as Ofelia, offered limited tone coloring and her voice often sounded tight, but she handled the mad scene quite effectively. Despite a strained upper register, Shannon De Vine made vivid contributions as Claudio (Claudius), phrasing the Act 3 prayer scene with particular sensitivity.

Rolando Sanz, fresh from singing the national anthem at Thursday's Orioles game, stood out for his vocally and theatrically potent performance as Laerte (Laertes). Matthew Curran phased the ghost's music expressively. The remainder of the cast and the small chorus got the job done, more or less.

Whatever the occasional disappointment in the opera or the execution, it was fascinating to experience a work that, like poor Yorick's skull, has been left in a grave, just waiting to be dug up and given a fresh, respectful look.

"Amleto" will be rpeated at 3 p.m. Sunday.

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