About this Recording
8.660454-55 - FACCIO, F.: Amleto (Hamlet) [Opera] (Černoch, J.M. Dan, Sgura, Kaiser, Prague Philharmonic Chorus, Vienna Symphony, Carignani)
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Franco Faccio (1840–1891)
Amleto (1865)


Hamlet on the Altar of Art

‘If, as Boito writes, I have profaned the altar of art, then let him cleanse it: I shall be the first to come and light a candle.’ This was Giuseppe Verdi’s reaction, as expressed in a letter, to the accusatory words of the writer and composer Arrigo Boito. He had taken the occasion of Franco Faccio’s first opera I profughi fiamminghi (‘The Flemish Refugees’) on 11 November 1863 to accuse Verdi—implicitly if not by name—of having ‘sullied the altar of art like the wall of a brothel’. A few days later Boito’s words were published under the headline ‘All’arte italiana’ (‘To Italian art’) in a Milan journal.

Almost 20 years later, on 24 March 1881, the premiere of Verdi’s opera Otello, based on William Shakespeare’s play, took place at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. The libretto was written by Boito and Franco Faccio was the conductor. Boito and Verdi, who all those years before had exchanged such unvarnished aesthetic opinions about each other’s work, had managed to put together an adaptation of Shakespeare that remains unparalleled to this day. At the age of 20 Boito had already taken on one of the greatest of all Shakespeare’s dramatic challenges, in the aim of reinventing Italian opera: Hamlet.

Boito and Faccio both studied at the Milan Conservatory. Besides their common struggle in the national liberation movement, they were united by a conviction that Italian opera was in urgent need of reinvention. They collaborated on two patriotic cantatas whose success went on to open the doors of the salons of Milan to them, one of which belonged to Clara Maffei. She gathered a wide array of the great and good in the spheres of art and politics, including Verdi and the writer Alessandro Manzoni. A study trip to Paris was arranged for Boito and Faccio, where they met Charles Gounod, Gioachino Rossini and Hector Berlioz. Boito and his brother Camillo in particular were members of an artistic movement called ‘Scapigliatura’. Inspired by Cletto Arrighi’s novel La Scapigliatura e il 6 febbraio, first published in 1858, these artists styled themselves as ‘Scapigliati’—‘the dishevelled ones’—or bohemians. They argued for art to have a close connection with real life and for the combination of a variety of art forms. Almost all its members were active in several genres and were not only poets, novelists or dramatists but also painters and sculptors. Boito had already written the text to Verdi’s hymn Inno delle nazioni (‘Hymn of the Nations’) in 1862, a year before he made his public criticisms of the composer. Nevertheless, it was not Boito but another author from the Scapigliatura, Emilio Praga, who Faccio chose to be the librettist for his first opera, which was taken off the programme after five disappointing performances at La Scala.

Boito was keen to propagate a new form of Italian opera and set out his proposals in the magazine Figaro, which he published together with Praga. Alongside a greater degree of musical unity within acts he aimed for a more equal relationship between libretto and music and argued that artists should study German chamber music and, more especially, the music dramas of Richard Wagner. Faccio and Boito’s opera Amleto (Hamlet) was to serve as a prime example of this kind of nuovo melodramma—this new form of opera. It was first performed in Genoa in 1865.

The choice of Shakespeare’s drama presented the two artists with a major challenge. Unlike several successful Shakespeare plays such as Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Macbeth, Italy tended to struggle with Hamlet. Hamlet’s famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy was first translated in isolation in Italy in the 18th century. In one of the first Italian editions Francesco Gritti followed the French adaptation of 1769, in which Jean-François Ducis had made a number of major changes to Shakespeare’s original. Yet even this version seemed to the Italian actor Antonio Morrochesi to offer no guarantee of success—so he played the title character himself under a pseudonym! There were several operas written using Gritti’s adaptation—which gave the play a happy ending—as a basis. Even Felice Romani, who went on to write numerous librettos, for Vincenzo Bellini among others, felt obliged to append a happy ending to his version of 1822. There was a gradual appreciation of Shakespeare’s original, but Giovanni Peruzzini, whose Hamlet libretto was set to music in 1848 and 1860, took the view that ‘Shakespeare’s sublime creation is entirely unsuited to being accommodated within the limited form of an opera.’ In his version, the Ghost designates Hamlet as the new king at the end of the play, who concludes the opera with the words ‘O giubilo!’ (‘O joy!’). Hamlet’s lack of operatic potential, as asserted by Peruzzini, was expressed even more starkly by Richard Wagner in his diary in 1879: ‘A musician need not concern himself with what is no concern of his. Hamlet is of no concern to a musician.’ Did he know Faccio and Boito’s Amleto, we might wonder?

Faccio and Boito were the first authors of an operatic adaptation of Hamlet who genuinely felt bound by Shakespeare’s original. Of course even they had to shorten this long and complex play, remove certain characters and adapt scenes for the operatic stage. This, though, they did in a conscientious, precise fashion. The very opening of the opera reveals how skilfully Shakespeare’s drama and indeed the theatrical practice of his time have been translated into the new context. Music, noises and plot narration all play a major role in Shakespeare’s text, replacing a stage setting that is often merely implied, or entirely absent. The opera departs from the play in opening with a lively party to celebrate the newly crowned king Claudius—Hamlet’s uncle and now his mother’s husband. In the play, the prince tells Horatio: ‘The king doth wake tonight and keeps his rouse, / Keeps wassails and the swaggering upspring reels, / And as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down, / The kettledrum and trumpet thus bray out / the triumph of his pledge.’ In the lavish opening scene of the opera this jubilant celebration and ecstatic dancing, along with Hamlet’s disgusted reaction, all mingle together. Where Hamlet refers in the play to music that can be heard beyond the stage, Boito and Faccio put that music on stage.

In this scene Boito characterises the king with a drinking song, whose original function takes on surprising new dimensions. Flute, clarinet and triangle trill the start of a cheerful Brindisi (‘drinking song’)—but after just four bars (Allegro brillante) the music shifts to a noticeably slower Andante tempo, which lends a particular weight to Claudius’s unexpected words: ‘May the dead be granted eternal rest’. There is another general pause after four bars, before the faster tempo returns: ‘and may the goblets be filled with noble draughts’. This contrast is then repeated at the words: ‘Let us pray for them—and may the goblet be altar and sacrifice!’. Claudius picks up on the grief Hamlet had earlier expressed for his recently deceased father, and is celebrated by the royal retinue for his suggestion that the best thing is to transmute that sorrow into joyful drinking. This blasphemous cynicism can also be seen in Iago’s Credo from Boito’s Otello libretto. Dark, cynical characters proved to be a particular fascination for this author: the operas he composed himself were called Mefistofele and Nerone.

Claudius’s new wife assumes the very same cynicism, singing the second verse of the drinking song, this time with slightly gentler lyrics. The queen is portrayed more clearly than in Shakespeare as a willing accomplice, who confesses her guilt in her third act aria: ‘I am guilty: I robbed my son of father and throne, I am no mother’. The prince has learnt the manner of his father’s murder from the apparition of the dead king. Instead of promptly carrying out the instruction to take vengeance, Hamlet resorts to the medium of the theatre: he has a troupe of travelling performers, recently arrived at court, act out a play in accordance with a scenario devised by himself: another brutal regicide, The Murder of Gonzago. Whereas at the start of the opera Hamlet could only look on in disgust at the sight of the riotous celebrations, he becomes an active shaper of events after the appearance of the Ghost. He takes on the role of a madman, and subsequently himself becomes the director of events.

Shakespeare’s play and Boito’s libretto both leave the question open as to whether Hamlet is aware that the royal couple and Polonius are eavesdropping on him during his famous ‘To be or not to be’ speech. If he does know, he fulfils the expectations of his listeners. ‘But look where sadly the poor wretch comes reading’, says the queen in the opera. If Hamlet’s vocal line has thus far been principally characterised by a kind of violent energy—in the preceding scene he vociferously swore vengeance to the Ghost—his voice now takes on a reflective tone, with a melodic line only hesitantly emerging. Faccio did not compose the soliloquy as an aria, but instead connected various and recitative passages together, as if seeking to do justice to the text’s philosophical character. When Ophelia arrives, sent by Polonius to see Hamlet, he counsels her to ‘Get thee to a nunnery’: he no longer loves her, if he ever did at all.

King and queen both recognise in Hamlet—as director of the play—a visible danger. They slowly become aware of the story they are being presented with. Boito and Faccio craft this key scene in a variety of ways. First of all Shakespeare’s stage direction: ‘[A] Danish march [is heard]’ is translated into music. At the Andante marziale all participants appear. The blasts on the trumpet mentioned in the text can be heard at the very beginning of the instrumental section. The king and queen (in the play) sing simple, madrigal-style melodies. Whereas in Shakespeare, Hamlet expresses criticism of the outdated pantomime style of the performance, in Faccio’s opera he exclaims after just a few bars of the musical introduction ‘Phew! This style reeks ofmildew even a mile off; this will end up sending us all to sleep.’ Boito embellished the play within a play with a discussion about aesthetic conceptions of music. The tenors and the young Laertes praise the art of their forefathers, while the basses and Polonius, Laertes’s father, are bored by the music. The ages of the respective characters suggests the converse split of opinion, but like the words in this turbulent scene, the aesthetic discourse is perceptible only to the reader of the libretto—not the spectator of the opera. The musicologist Kerstin Schüssler sees this as an indication that the ‘less pugnacious Faccio’ had clearly not understood Boito’s commentary on the discourse he has been following: ‘He concealed Boito’s invective with seven different texts in parallel and did not pick up on Boito’s designation of vecchi (‘old’) and giovani spettatori (‘young spectators’), instead merely setting up a simple polarisation of tenor (in favour) and bass (against).’

Hamlet’s pretence of madness becomes an existential threat to Gertrude in his duet with the queen. She fears for her life, calls for help and so triggers Hamlet’s killing of Polonius, who has been hiding to eavesdrop on both of them. Hamlet’s frenzy leads into a song of several stanzas, in which he chastises his mother for her brazen love of the stupid ‘monkey king’. His mocking laughter is interrupted by the renewed appearance of the Ghost. The powerful trio that follows covers the whole vocal spectrum, with very high and very deep male voices—Hamlet and the Ghost—alongside the mid-range vocal register of the queen’s mezzo-soprano.

The reception of Faccio’s opera was heavily influenced by the fact that at the second staging of the work at La Scala in 1871 the radiant heights of Hamlet’s tenor were, in all probability, entirely inaudible. The illness of the tenor Mario Tiberini, who was scheduled to sing at this performance, had already led to the premiere being put back by two weeks. After its eventual performance on 12 February 1871, the work’s publisher Giulio Ricordi commented in the Gazzetta Musicale: ‘Amleto was performed without Hamlet’. This staging would remain a one-off. Faccio would not publish another note, concentrating instead on his conducting activities. In this capacity he took charge of the successful Italian premiere of Verdi’s Aida in 1872, the revised version of the same composer’s La forza del destino, and Don Carlo in 1878. Faccio conducted at La Scala until 1889, with the highlight of his career surely being the premiere of Verdi’s Otello. Numerous other premieres, including the first Italian performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, make Faccio one of the most significant Italian conductors of the 19th century. The publication of the score of Amleto in 2007 by American conductor Anthony Barrese is testimony to his importance as a composer. Without Barrese, the opera would not have been staged at the Opera Southwest in Albuquerque in 2014. And without Elisabeth Sobotka’s focus on this work as a student there would have been no recent Austrian premiere of the opera—the first complete performance of the opera in Europe since 1871. Complete, because part of the opera survived on the Greek island of Corfu: the sumptuous funeral march for Ophelia is played there every year on Easter Saturday, in a version for wind orchestra.



Act I

Claudius is throwing a party to celebrate his coronation as the new King of Denmark. Prince Hamlet is disgusted by these festivities, led by his uncle and his mother. Less than a month has passed since the death of his father, the former king. Hamlet’s mother has married Claudius in the meantime. The King’s counsellor Polonius and his son Laertes join in the praises of the new king. Ophelia, Polonius’s daughter, who is expected to marry Hamlet, confesses all her misgivings to him, while begging him to believe in her love. The King is tired of Hamlet’s gloomy disposition and commemorates deceased ancestors in a drinking song, wishing them eternal rest. Marcellus and Horatius, aside, explain that they have seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father on their sentry duty at night. Hamlet expresses the wish to see it for himself the following evening. A high-spirited dance brings the party to a close.

Shortly after midnight the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to Hamlet, Horatius and Marcellus. Left alone with his son, the Ghost tells him that it was not a snakebite that killed him, but his own brother, who had poured drops of poison into his ear while he slept. He has Hamlet swear to avenge his death. Upon Horatius’s and Marcellus’s return Hamlet insists that they vow never to speak of what they have seen.

Act II

Polonius advises the King and Queen to eavesdrop on Hamlet. They listen to his contemplations on human existence. Ophelia wants to give Hamlet back all the jewellery he has given her; Hamlet advises her to enter a nunnery. Polonius announces that a troupe of singers has arrived. Hamlet wants them to perform a tragedy, The Murder of Gonzago. He hopes to unmask the King by means of this story of a treacherous regicide recalling his own father’s murder.

The entire royal household follows the performance. Together with Horatius and Marcellus, Hamlet observes the King as he becomes increasingly agitated. The Queen seeks to pacify him: surely he cannot be afraid of a play? A discussion arises among the audience over the relative merits of traditional and contemporary art. At the point when the king is poisoned in the play, Claudius ends the performance in disgust.


The King is praying for his guilty conscience to be eased. Hamlet is watching him, but does not kill him, as he does not want to inadvertently send him to heaven by interrupting his prayers. Polonius hides in order to overhear the Queen’s conversation with her son. Hamlet rejects her accusations; the Queen fears for her life. Hamlet hears cries for help from Polonius’s hiding place, which he silences with his weapon. He recognizes the man he has killed as Polonius, accuses his mother of incest and, laughing, ridicules the King. The Ghost appears before him, reminding him of his promise to avenge him. The Queen is left alone to lament her son; she hopes to die at his hand in order to atone for her guilt once and for all.

Revolutionaries call for the death of the King, who has issued his guards with orders to take drastic measures against them. Laertes intends to avenge his father’s death. His sister Ophelia imagines how she will strew the dead man’s grave with flowers. Both are informed by the King of the identity of Polonius’s murderer. Ophelia commits suicide.

Act IV

At the cemetery. A Gravedigger sings as he carries out his work, unearthing various decaying skulls in the process. Hamlet picks up the skull of Yorick, the former court jester, and recalls the jokes he used to tell. With Horatius at his side, he walks away as the royal procession draws closer. The mourning royal couple and cortege take their leave of the late Ophelia. Laertes curses Hamlet, who falls upon him, drawing his sword. The pair have to be separated; Hamlet reaffirms his love for the dead woman.

Upon the King’s suggestion, Laertes and Hamlet are reunited for an exhibition fencing match. Laertes’s foil has been poisoned, with the intention of killing Hamlet. Hamlet hits first, and the King hands him a goblet. The Queen drinks from it instead, knowing full well that it contains poison. She is carried away unconscious. Hamlet scores another hit and snatches Laertes’s blade from him as he lies on the floor, before killing him. The dying Laertes reveals to Hamlet that the goblet was poisoned. Hamlet remembers that his mother had drunk from it. He kills the King.

© Bregenzer Festspiele GmbH / Olaf A. Schmitt, 2016
Translation: Saul Lipetz

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