All the world’s a stage. It’s from the wrong play, but the Melancholy Jaques’s extended metaphor in As You Like It could apply to Olivier Tambosi’s staging of Hamlet for the Bregenz Festival with its theatre-within-a-theatre setting and choral courtiers clad in clownish wigs and ruffs. Pavel Černoch smears white stage make-up over his face, Pagliacci-style, as Hamlet prepares to snare Claudius. The play’s the thing, but whose operatic Hamlet is this? It isn’t Brett Dean’s brand-new version which dazzled audiences at Glyndebourne this summer. Nor is it Ambroise Thomas’s 1868 grand opéra which gets the occasional outing, especially if there’s a star soprano available capable of tackling Ophélie’s dizzying coloratura.
Step forwards Franco Faccio (1840‑91), Italian composer and conductor. Even more significantly, step forward his lifelong friend and collaborator Arrigo Boito as librettist. Boito, of course, went on to collaborate with Giuseppe Verdi on two great Shakespearean masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff, and although Amleto was from much earlier – contemporary with Verdi’s late middle period – it is an exceptional piece of work, filleting a lengthy play to fit a two and a half-hour Italian opera without losing substantial elements of the plot and retaining all the key characters. Boito’s language is poetic, with plenty of floral references in Ophelia’s mad scene and the ghost speaking in terza rima, a metre Dante employed in his Divine Comedy.
Faccio and Boito were both members of the Scapigliatura, a group of young radicals determined to shake up the Italian opera scene. So why is Faccio’s Amleto virtually unknown? After its premiere in Genoa, Faccio revised it for La Scala in 1871, where he had been appointed music director. However, the tenor Mario Tiberini was ill, causing a postponement. When the opera did play in Milan, Tiberini was not sufficiently recovered, the performance flopped – the great Italian publisher Giulio Ricordi dismissed it as ‘Hamlet without Hamlet’ – and Faccio promptly withdrew the opera, never to allow a revival. He settled instead on life as a conductor, responsible for the premieres of Aida, the revised Simon Boccanegra and Otello.
Anthony Barrese of Opera Southwest (Albuquerque) made a performing edition from the autograph manuscript and a piano vocal score, the edition later used by the Bregenz Festival in 2016 for the European revival of Faccio’s opera as part of its Shakespeare400 celebrations. Despite Faccio’s Wagnerian inclinations, this is music very much in an Italian mould, with set piece arias and duets but also through-composed recitatives. Some passages could have spilled from the pen of Verdi himself, especially Ophelia’s funeral march, which is wholly memorable.
Tambosi’s production in the Bregenz Festspielhaus is simple but effective. Černoch’s tortured Hamlet – dressed in plain black, emphasising his detachment from court life – acts and sings terrifically, including his great soliloquy ‘Essere o non essere!’ (To be or not to be), while the Romanian soprano Iulia Maria Dan is an affecting Ophelia, wandering through waist-high greenery, plucking leaves in her mad scene to a swooning violin melody. The Ghost of Old Hamlet (the booming bass Gianluca Buratto) is dramatically silhouetted against bright back-lighting, there’s a powerful prayer for Claudio Sgura’s slippery Claudius and a dramatic Gertrude from mezzo Dshamilja Kaiser. Paul Schweinester’s eloquent, curly-mopped Laertes contributes well to the dramatic final duel.
In short, Amleto is a very fine work indeed – superior to Thomas’s Hamlet – and this Bregenz production constitutes a major operatic rediscovery.