Tomorrow night OperaDelaware debuts Franco Faccio’s long lost operatic adaptation of “Hamlet” at The Grand Opera House in Wilmington.
When tenor Joshua Kohl was reading Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in school, little did he know that one day he’d be singing the words of the play’s most famous soliloquy of dark thoughts and despair.
But that’s exactly what he’ll be doing tomorrow night when OperaDelaware presents the East Coast premiere of Franco Faccio’s long lost operatic adaptation of the bard’s tragic tale of murder and vengeance at The Grand Opera House in Wilmington.
Kohl considers the opportunity both daunting and exciting. “The vast majority of people who are going to se this opera have never heard this music before,” he said. “And I’m gong to be the first person they will hear do it.”
The saga of Faccio’s ill-fated opera reads like a tragedy itself. “Amleto”– as it is known in Italian–premiered in Genoa, Italy in 1865 to critical acclaim. The composer revived it at La Scala in Milan in 1871. But the tenor fell ill and lost his voice on opening night. Crushed by the scathing reviews, Faccio turned his attention toward conducting and never composed again. The opera was never performed during his lifetime.
“Unfortunately he didn’t have much faith in the work but everyone around him did,” said conductor Anthony Barrese who rescued the work from obscurity in the archives of publisher Casa Ricordi in Milan, Italy. The opera received its U.S. premiere last fall at Opera Southwest in Albuquerque, New Mexico where Barrese serves as music director.
The opera’s odyssey back to the stage began in 2002 when Barrese ran across a reference to it while reading a book on Verdi. He tracked down a copy of the libretto at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. He also had Ricordi send him a microfilm of the score from which he printed out 600 pages. He spent a year deciphering it, even traveling to Milan to study the original for a week.
What started as a curiosity quickly grew into an obsession. “As I went through the music, I kept discovering new things and it was really interesting,” he said. “It was like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. It kept sparking my interest.”
Operas routinely slip in and out of obscurity with little or no fanfare. So what makes the Faccio work so fascinating?
Faccio’s approach was unique. Many composers have based operas on Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, the best known being by French composer Ambroise Thomas. But none remains as faithful to Shakespeare’s text as does Faccio’s work.
“It’s amazing how he didn’t change Shakespeare,” Barrese said. “Some of it is absolutely verbatim. All the famous iconic lines have equivalents in the libretto.”
That libretto was penned by a fledgling Arrigo Boito, who would become famous for writing librettos for Verdi’s final two operas, “Otello” and “Falstaff.” Indeed, it was that early collaboration that sparked Barrese’s interest in resurrecting the work.
Faccio was also looking to chart a new course for Italian opera. Although his work is firmly rooted n the language of the period, he was also part of a larger cultural movement known as the Scapigliatura which sought to bring Wagner’s music to Italy.
“He uses a lot more chromaticism because of what he learned about Wagner and what he learned about the music of the future,” Barrese explained.
Like Wagner, Faccio sought to bring a symphonic element to opera. Every scene in “Hamlet” opens with an orchestral prelude that sets the tone for the action going forward. “That’s the one thing Verdi resisted for much of his career,” Barrese said. “Listening to Faccio, you think you’re listening to mid- to late Verdi.”
The opera has also been referred to as the “missing link” that bridges the gap between the bel canto and verismo movements in opera. “It’s slightly more direct than bel canto,” said Kohl, who’s managed to retain a couple of tenor high Cs in the famous soliloquy. “But at the same time it’s tuneful. The melodies are really well-produced and hummable. It’s great music.”
Most operas come with a performance history either in the form of recordings or videos. But with “Hamlet” there is no such precedent.
“That can be both a blessing and a curse depending upon the production,” director Loren Meeker said. “Here what’s been so wonderful is that I feel like in many ways, we’re all developing something together from the ground up and that’s exciting.”
Meeker said the production—one of the largest in the history of Opera Delaware—will combine period costumes with modern technology. “We’re experimenting with projection; we’re experimenting with live feeds; we’re experimenting with video to help us explore the characters in a way we might not be able to do if this was purely a realistic or traditional production,” she said.
“Hamlet” will be performed in repertory with Verdi’s “Falstaff” as part of OperaDelaware’s first foray into the festival format. OperaDelaware General Director Brendan Cooke saw the audience-boosting potential of pairing the novelty of “Hamlet” with the Delaware professional premiere of “Falstaff,” two Shakespearean adaptations featuring Boito-penned librettos.
The strategy seems to be working.
More than 500 patrons are coming from beyond a 30-mile radius—the company is hoping to attract 1,000—including one devotee who will ride his motorcycle down from Canada to attend a matinee. The company has also attracted more than 800 new patrons.
“This is big. This is our ‘Hey-look-at-us moment,'” Cooke explained. “‘Hamlet’ is going to get people here and ‘Falstaff’ is going to cement their relationship with us.”
As for Barrese, his mission of discovery and revival will continue with an entirely new staging of “Hamlet” this summer at the Bregenz Festival in Austria. He believes that “Hamlet” has the potential to “freshen up” the standard operatic repertoire. “Audiences love it because it’s ‘new’ but they don’t know it,” he said. “It’s also in a familiar language.”
“Hamlet” will be performed May 14, 20 and 22; “Falstaff” on May 15 and 21, both at The Grand Opera House, 818 North Market Street, Wilmington. Ticket prices range from $29 – $95.For more information: call 302-442-7807 or www.operade.org