In search of Italian opera’s missing Hamlet

The conductor Anthony Barrese has spent ten years searching for an opera on Hamlet by Franco Faccio, with a libretto by Verdi’s Boito, staged at La Scala in 1871.

He reconstructed version will be seen next month at Opera Delaware, and then at this summer’s elite Bregenz Festival. We asked Tony Barrese to explain his obsession. You read his story here first:

franco faccio



I first became aware of an opera based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet with a libretto by Arrigo Boito and score by Franco Faccio in 2002, during my first season as an Assistant Conductor at Sarasota Opera. The early history of the opera is very brief. It was premiered with some success in Genoa in 1865, and the composer gave it an extensive revision for La Scala. The 1871 La Scala production was a disaster; the tenor who sang Hamlet was ill and gave a poor performance. Faccio was so disturbed by this failure that he refused to have the piece performed again in his lifetime, and gave up composing altogether. Thus Amleto lapsed into obscurity for nearly a century and a half. Faccio, however, went on to an impressive career as a conductor, leading the Italian premiere of Aida, and the world premieres of La gioconda, Otello, and the revised Simon Boccanegra. He also became, in effect, the first music director of La Scala, or the first “maestro scaligero.”

By the time I became interested in the opera, there was no usable musical source other than the printed libretto and a few piano vocal score excerpts. What started out as a curiosity (what did these legendary scenes in Shakespeare sound like to a 19th century Italian?) soon became an obsession. But contrary to standard practice, Ricordi had never made a complete piano vocal score, and so my only hope was that the Ricordi Archives in Milan had a copy of the composer’s autograph full score. Through the efforts of Maestro Victor DeRenzi at Sarasota Opera, dramaturg Cori Ellison (then with the New York City Opera), and the eminent Verdi and Rossini scholar Philip Gossett, I was able to contact Gabriele Dotto at Casa Ricordi who informed me that Ricordi did indeed possess the autograph manuscript. This was the summer of 2003, and Ricordi was in the process of moving its Archives from the outskirts of Milan to the beautiful Brera district. As luck would have it, they had a copy of the autograph on microfilm, and I immediately sent away for it.

As soon as the microfilm arrived I had photocopies made on 11 x 17 paper, and before I knew it I was face-to-face with a 900+ page manuscript filled with faded staff lines, and a barely legible handwriting, which contained thousands of 19th century idiosyncrasies. I was on the music staff of Opera North in New Hampshire that summer, and in my spare time I began transcribing the manuscript. The first page was not so bad:

Besides having the violins and violas at the top of the score, and the bassoons written under the trumpets, this page didn’t pose that many problems. But it wasn’t long before I ran into pages like this, where the lines were completely faded, and things were crossed out, and rearranged:

All of this is standard fare for a musicologist, but as a conductor (with degrees in music composition) it became a fascinating exploration of new terrain. I did find that if I could uncover one note in a harmonic progression—since Faccio was still operating in the world of tonal harmony—the rest could be filled in very logically. It was only in places where the composer was experimenting with his version of “wagnerismo” that things got a little dicey.

Today, libretti for both the 1865 Genova premiere and the 1871 La Scala remount are readily available online. Back in 2003, my wife had to go to the New York City Performing Arts Library and make a photocopy of a microfilm of the libretto. This proved to be extremely useful, as Faccio’s handwriting was completely foreign to me at the time.

Note by note, week by week, month by month, I started stitching the piece back together. Besides being a brilliant piece of dramatic theater, Boito’s libretto is a distillation of all the greatest moments of Shakespeare. “To be or not to be” becomes “Essere o non essere;” “Get thee to a nunnery” is now “Fatti monachella!;” and “methinks the lady doth protest too much” is “È soverchio loquace la regina.” I would come to one of these iconic moments, write it out, then rush to the piano to figure out what it sounded like. The play within a play was now a riveting opera within an opera. The scene with the ghost and Hamlet’s mother became a scintillating gran scena e terzetto. With every passing scene, Shakespeare’s tragedy came to light in a musical language that was both familiar and new.

After months of painstakingly putting the pieces together, I finally had my own handwritten full score of the piece, and began engraving it on a computer program. But in order for people to be able to look at it and assess it, I needed to make a piano vocal score of it. So I started again with the first page of the score, simultaneously checking my original work, and reducing it to a playable form for the piano. Right away I found dozens of errors from my first past draft in the first few pages. Things that were unclear on the first pass-through now were illuminated since I had a better understanding of Faccio’s writing style. Once the piano vocal score was completed I began shopping the piece around to anyone who cared to look at it.

I spent the summer of 2004 in Milan and was able to view the autograph manuscript first-hand in the archives over a series of weeks, again checking for uncertainties, and hoping that the physical manuscript was easier to read than the microfilm (it was). During the winter of 2006 my friend Eugene Kohn and I organized a read through of the score for Plácido Domingo, who later wrote “I had the pleasure to attend a presentation of this work…and I remember well the strong impression made by both the quality of the mjusic and the performance.” In 2007 I led the American premiere of Ofelia’s “Marcia Funebre” with the Dallas Opera Orchestra.

Years went by, and I would occasionally tinker with the piece, uncovering layers that had previously been confusing, eventually creating a set of orchestra parts, while in the meantime my conducting career began in earnest. When in 2010 I was made Artistic Director of Opera Southwest in Albuquerque, we experimented with some lesser-known operas like Rossini’s Otello, which proved to be a big hit with the audience and garnered us some national attention. Seeing that, artistically, the way forward for a regional company lay less in the tried and true standard repertoire, and more in unknown works, the board approved a production of Amleto for the fall of 2014.

Opera Southwest formed a partnership with Baltimore Concert Opera through my friend Brendan Cooke, who had been with me at Opera North when I first started transcribing the work, and who had taken a keen interest in its development throughout the years. Now Brendan was Artistic Director at BCO, and General Director at Opera Delaware. In Baltimore, we did a week of musical rehearsals, culminating in two concert performances with piano. These evenings received positive reviews from the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and (Anne Midgette called the work a “missing link between Verdi and Verismo”). Immediately following the BCO performances, the cast and I all headed to Albuquerque and worked for the next month preparing Amleto for its first fully staged production since 1871.

The Opera Southwest production was an enormous financial and artistic success for the company and was reviewed favorably by the Financial Times, the Corriere della Sera, American Record Guide, and the Santa Fe New Mexican. Opening night was broadcast live on KHFM Albuquerque.

This May, I will lead a new production at Opera Delaware with an entirely new cast, directed by E. Loreen Meeker. In the summer of 2016 the work will be mounted by the Bregenz Festival with another new production, conducted by Paolo Carignani and directed by Olivier Tambosi. It has been an incredible experience to see this piece go from a small curiosity, to an all-encompassing obsession, to being staged by two opera companies in the same year, on different continents. I feel very strongly (however subjective my belief may be), that the piece deserves to be heard more. If it eventually ended up in the standard repertoire, or even on the periphery of the standard repertoire, it will have exceeded my most fantastical expectations.

(c) Anthony Barrese/Slipped Disc 




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  • What a great endeavor!

    We’d never have to suffer through another badly-composed new opera if we dug out some of the well-done-but-forgotten works from the romantic era.

    That goes for symphonies and concertos, too. There’s a goldmine out there we are ignoring.

  • We didn’t read it here first. Anne Midgette was way ahead of you when she talked about the Baltimore performances, including the background of the story.

  • Hi all! If you’re in the Delaware area on May 14, 20, 22, please come out and see our production of “Amleto.” Thank you Mr. Lebrecht for the opportunity to tell my story here.

  • Very interesting story of determination and hard work. Warm congratulations. I recently gave a talk comparing Shakespeare’s Othello and Verdi’s Otello and was very impressed by Boito’s handling of the text.

    • His libretto for “Hamlet” is very impressive, especially when you consider that it was his very first libretto. Thank you everybody for the comments. I’m sorry that Milka thinks the project is not worthwhile. I would venture to say that if s/he comes to our production on May 14, 19, 21 in Delaware we might be able to change his/her mind?

      In any case, thank you again Mr. Lebrecht for allowing me space to tell my story.

      • But why this work ? Does Mr. Barrese not find contemporary works deserving of
        his expertise and time ? Sad that Mr.Barrese does not address his own time.

        • Milka- do you not see that this took 12 years of Maestro Barrese’s life? Is he morally obligated by some opera police to devote his time equally between unearthing a very important (and extremely satisfying) historical work, and championing contemporary opera? If he were, we might have had to wait another 50 years for Faccio’s Amleto. Why is it hard to accept that this work has great merit, and that musicologist sand opera fans are celebrating it?

          • People fill or waste their lives as they see fit…there is no moral obligation as to
            how Mr. Barrese spends his his time ..he has gone public with this project in resurrecting a defunct composer of sorts who is barely a foot note to musical history and so one wonders why ?
            Whatever snippets of music one hears by Faccio shows him to be writer of his time and in his history he was of his time- there is no record of Faccio digging
            in the grave yard of dead composers ,he was too busy with the living . Mr. Barrese can occupy his time with any project he wishes with whatever results but one thinks that as
            a functioning musician in the 21C it is not so much the dead as the living composer
            that needs his championing.

        • To answer your question Milka, my training is in composition. All of my early condicting experience was w new music (Ligeti, Boulez, Berio). I’ve conducted the world premiere of a children’s opera, and I’ve even written an opera myself.

          I would love nothing more than to do more contemporary opera. Commission it, conduct it, write it, talk about it. But that’s not what this article is about. I didn’t set out to spend a decade of my life on this project. It started out as a curiosity, and as I discovered more and more worthy things in it, I kept going.

          This project was also a marriage of my love of 19th century Italian opera and my love of the Italian language. Now granted, I have no objectivity left about the piece. Which is why I think you and other skeptics should come and hear it. It can only truly be judged as a piece of living breathing theater.

          Even if it is written by a dead guy.

          • I would sooner buy a ticket to hear works by you than I would to hear works by
            a defunct composer of no consequence.What little I have heard of Faccio impresses
            not at all That you devoted 10 years of your life to this composer when you could have been attending to your own musical garden is perhaps a loss greater than whatever
            one might seem to gain in unearthing yet another 19C curiosity .Let’s hear your opera .

        • No, Barrese likes to live in a different era where you could stalk underage chorus girls and not face the consequences. He loves to make us cry while making us succumb to his disgusting, perverted ways that include ropes. Being a controlling abusive pervert is his hobby of choice and living in the past is the best way to justify this.

  • Recitation of Barese’s provincial career, tobs of name dropping. Three sentences of substance on Faccio. Why publish this drivel?

  • How does anybody troll the resurrection of a forgotten opera?! How is anybody so jealous of Barrese’s enormous accomplishment that they have to malign his endeavor? I’ve seen the Amleto, and the production is a remarkable achievement by all concerned. It’s very sad even this will bring out the haters. I wish they’d protest bad productions with as much severity.

  • Unbelievable lack of respect from RESPECT. I sense RESPECT commented in order to get a reaction. The fact of the matter is, AMLETO is a fantastic marriage of music and theater; a wonderful presentation of arguably Shakespeare’s most beloved play. I agree with Barrese: the only way to develop an opinion of the work is to hear and see it.

    Frankly, unless a contemporary person who calls herself a composer can write something worth hearing more than once outside of academia, I’ll take a resurrected 19th century piece any day.

    • “the worth hearing more than once comment depends who is doing the hearing, most
      of the so called lovers of music (opera ,symphony ) to accept anything new the work had better sound like the old . I am sure Mr. Barrese has realized this long ago .
      What Mr.Bobbin forgets or has yet to understand is – that all he holds dear in music
      was at one time or another considered “modern” not as good as the old ” Mozart ,
      Beethoven , Wagner , even 19C Verdi faced the past but being true to themselves
      as artists-creators spoke to their own time while acknowledging the past . A Chopin
      piano work is a long way off from Bach or Mozart whom we are told Chopin held in
      the highest esteem as composers while being true to himself as an 19C composer.
      New works often take time to absorb and understand beyond the one time hearing.
      So before Mr.Bobbin rushes off to the grave yard in search of yet another decomposing composer give the living a more than a one time chance. You never know……….

      • Milka, I definitely applaud your enthusiasm of contemporary music. I wish more opera audiences shared it. If and when my opera is produced, I will be sure to let you know about it. And while I probably can’t convince you to see and hear “Amleto,” I will leave you with the following:

        Even though I started my career as a composer and currently make a living conducting, I don’t consider myself a composer or a conductor. I consider myself a musician. Music is what interests me. Writing it, conducting it, performing it, studying it, listening to it, researching it, etc. It’s all part of the same thing for me.
        And while I’m very interested in new music, I’m also of the belief that we can learn a lot from old music. Mendelssohn brought back Bach, Stravinsky worked with the manuscripts of Gesualdo, Azio Corghi produced the critical edition of Rossini’s “L’italiana in Algeri,” and Luciano Berio’s eclectic taste in researching older music is legendary.

        That is not to put Faccio on the level of Bach, Gesualdo, or Rossini (much less to put myself on the level of Mendelssohn, Stravinsky, Corghi, or Berio), but it’s more a defense of the old from the new.

        Simply working on this project gave me great insights into a unique phenomenon: how did a 19th century Italian composer, with a penchant for Wagner, approach the orchestra? Seeing the various layers and reworkings of even simple orchestral passages was enlightening. In an age when he couldn’t simply put the music into Finale and get an instant playback, his ability and craft with the orchestra surpassed even Verdi’s (at that time).

        I will continue to champion new music, and to find inspiration in the past. And if you change your mind about “Amleto,” it’s just in a couple weeks (and the recording is currently available on i-tunes!).

        All best

        • You might like to know Glyndebourne is doing a a ticket to
          that would be interesting…perhaps you could arrange a US premiere
          as a contrast to a century+ old view.

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