That an opera inspired by Shakespeare's "Hamlet" should have suffered a tragic fate has a certain irony. Whether Franco Faccio's "Amleto" deserved it is another matter. This week, Baltimore Concert Opera will make a fresh case for the piece, which has gone unheard since 1871.
"I think the music is gorgeous, sweeping and melodic," says Anthony Barrese, the Chicago-based conductor who unearthed "Amleto" and will lead the performance. "But, at this point, I have no objectivity at all."
Barrese has spent more than a decade trying to put Faccio's forgotten work back in the spotlight. In addition to the concert version in Baltimore, which will only have piano accompaniment, "Amleto" will get its first staged production, complete with orchestra, in 143 years next month in Albuquerque at Opera Southwest, where Barrese is artistic director and principal conductor.
Whether all this attention will lift the fortunes of Faccio's take on the troubled Danish prince remains to be seen, but, at the very least, it promises a fascinating trip into opera history.
If Faccio's name rings any bells these days, it's not because of his own music. Before dying in a mental asylum in 1891 at age 51, he enjoyed an extraordinary career as a conductor, especially valued by Verdi.
Arrigo Boito, who wrote the libretto for "Amleto," is much better known today, partly because he was the composer of the Faustian opera "Mefistofele." He enjoys greater fame as the brilliant librettist for Verdi's two Shakespeare-inspired masterworks, "Otello" (Faccio conducted the world premiere) and "Falstaff."
In 1863, the 23-year-old Faccio's first opera, "I profughi fiamminghi" ("The Flemish Refugees"), was produced. Boito was impressed.
Boito, who considered himself something of a musical revolutionary, gave an infamous speech predicting that Faccio would help "cleanse the altar of Italian opera, now defiled like the walls of a brothel." When Verdi heard about that comment, he took it personally and didn't get over the sting for years.
Shortly after Boito caused that dust-up, he tried his hand at writing a "Hamlet"-based libretto for his friend Faccio. "All the lines we think of when we think of 'Hamlet' are there," Barrese says.
"Amleto," which premiered in 1865, garnered only modest success.
"The music was criticized for having too much recitative, not enough melody," Barrese says. "Faccio retouched the opera quite a bit after that. 'To be or not to be,' for example, which had been in a very slow, recit style, became very much an aria. The opera sounds very much like middle-Verdi."
La Scala, the famed opera house in Milan, agreed to produce the revised "Amleto" in 1871. Things were looking up when the tenor in the title role became ill just before opening night, which had to be postponed for a couple of weeks. He was still unwell when the management decided the opera would go on anyway.
"The tenor could not sing," Barrese says. "He was taking things down an octave and leaving things out. But he still got applause. People were not booing the entire time."
Some portions of the opera even won hearty ovations, including a funeral march for Ophelia, which the 1865 audience had also particularly liked. But Faccio, who conducted the performance, decided afterward that he would withdraw "Amleto" and never try composing an opera again.
"He had particularly thin skin," Barrese says. "If Puccini had been like that, we wouldn't have 'Madama Butterfly.' If Verdi had been like that, we wouldn't have 'La Traviata.'" (Those masterpieces had miserable first nights, too.)
To this day, the only operatic "Hamlet" that ever gets produced, sporadically, is one from 1868 by French composer Ambroise Thomas. Neither the music nor the libretto, which takes liberties with Shakespeare's text, has ever been universally respected.
"I've always loved 'Hamlet' above all other Shakespeare plays," Barrese says, "and I never really liked the Thomas piece. When I read somewhere that Boito's first libretto was 'Amleto,' I got very interested."
In 2002, the conductor started on a search that would involve lots of waiting and wading. Eventually, Barrese tracked down the little extant material. The score had never been published, but an archive in Milan provided a microfilm copy of Faccio's handwritten original.
"I carried around a suitcase for weeks filled with 800 11-by-17 pages — photocopies of a faded manuscript from the 1870s," Barrese says. "I couldn't read the handwriting at first. But you just get better at it after a while."
Bit by bit, Barrese reconstructed the obscure opera, finishing the project in 2003. Then he set about trying to get it performed.
When he was working with Florida's Sarasota Opera in 2004, he engaged some of the company's young artists to try out a few scenes; while working at the Dallas Opera, Barrese was able to conduct the company's orchestra in Ophelia's funeral march in 2006.
"There have been few moments of not thinking about this opera for 11 years," the conductor says.
During those years, Barrese met two of Baltimore Concert Opera's founding members, artistic director Brendan Cooke and executive director Julia Cooke, who also became enthusiastic about "Amleto." The then two-year-old company first planned to present the work in 2011, but financing proved too difficult.
"We kept it on the back burner," Julia Cooke says. "We feel we are able to take more artistic risks now. It is exciting to be part of something new, to be taking an adventure and taking our audience along with us."