Franco Faccio’s 1865 work Amleto disappeared from the opera repertoire after the disastrous opening night of its 1871 revival at La Scala only to be “rediscovered” in recent years and featured at the 2016 Bregenz Festival. It was Faccio’s second, and last opera, though he enjoyed a career as a conductor, that included eighteen years as Music Director at La Scala before being institutionalized due to the effects of syphilis. So, one naturally asks, is it any good? The answer is an emphatic “yes”. It’s not only good but seems quite advanced for an Italian opera of that date. It’s closer in spirit to Puccini than bel canto. Indeed the soliloquy Essere o non essere sounds curiously like E lucevan le stelle. It’s similar to later Verdi and, indeed, Puccini in that it’s through sung with recitative like passages and set piece arias and ensemble numbers and it’s more conventionally tonal than its contemporary Tristan und Isolde. Arguably the orchestral writing is more interesting than that for voice (Ophelia’s funeral march is very fine) and certainly the weakest parts are the ensembles. It’s probably also fair to say that there is no big hummable melody. Still, Faccio was twenty five when he wrote it and there aren’t many better operas by twenty five year olds.
The libretto is by Arrigo Boito and it’s a pretty skilful adaptation/condensation of the core elements of Shakespeare’s play. The Fortinbras and Rosenkranz/Guildenstern subplots are gone and the emphasis is primarily Hamlet’s search for revenge and his relationships with Ophelia and Gertrude. Boito rarely translates well known bits word for word; the gravedigger scene being an obvious exception. It’s also notable that Ophelia’s mad scene is not given the sort of crazy coloratura treatment that one might expect. Rather it’s quite elegiac. He makes effective use of the chorus too, especially in an orgiastic opening scene. All in all, rather well done.
The Bregenz production, in the Festspielhaus not out on the lake, was directed by Olivier Tambosi with quite striking sets and costumes by Frank Philipp Schlössman and Gesine Völlm. The lighting plot by Davy Cunningham also plays an important role. It’s visually interesting. Characters seem to be colour coded. Hamlet is black. Other leading characters wear rich, solid colours that match the action and the chorus and minor characters wear mostly motley or stripes. The opening scene apart, the set is dominated by a giant rocky cube though I can’t figure out why. It tends to be pretty high energy, especially at the beginning, with lots of movement and dance. The appearances of the Ghost are effective, mainly due to very atmospheric lighting.
The performances centre on the Hamlet of Pavel Černoch. He’s vocally extremely secure and acts very well indeed. He’s got brooding down to a fine art but it’s far from a one dimensional interpretation. He’s well supported bu Iulia Maria Dan who has just the right kind of sweet toned soprano for Ophelia. She’s very touching in the mad scene. Dshamilja Kaiser is quite an affecting Gertrude. There’s some real horror in her interactions with her son in Act 3. Claudio Sgura does a really nice job of portraying Claudius’ moral disintegration. Finally, Gianlucca Buratto has an appropriately sepulchral voice for the Ghost. Minor characters are all carried off well and the Prague Philharmonic Chorus plays a crucial role. The Wiener Symphoniker are in the pit and there’s some very fine playing by some of their principals. Paolo Carignani conducts and seems to be well in tune with the score. He certainly brings out the virtues of the orchestral writing.
The transfer to Blu-ray is very good. The picture is clear and, as some scenes are very dark, Blu-ray is likely needed for full effect. The DTS-HD sound is clear and detailed with good dynamic range. Felix Breisach’s video direction is mostly fine but he does have a couple of quirks. The appearance of the Ghost has him running for the full spectrum of video director tricks and, for some odd reason, he focuses rather heavily on conductor and orchestra during the funeral march. Still, one sees enough to understand what is happening on stage. The booklet is a bit skimpy. There’s a track listing, a synopsis and a very short explanatory essay. The only extras are trailers for other Bregenz productions. Subtitle options are English, Italian, German, French and Korean.
It might be slightly over egging it to describe Amleto as a “forgotten masterpiece” but I think it stands the test of time better than a lot of works that are regularly programmed. The Bregenz production and performance put it forward in the best possible light and the technical values of the recording are excellent. Definitely worth a look!