When Giuseppe Verdi's Otello had its triumphant premiere at Milan's La Scala, in 1887, two artists closely involved with the event might well have remembered a similar premiere decades earlier, of another new opera based on Shakespeare -- but one that had a far different outcome.
The two men were Arrigo Boito, the librettist for Verdi's opera, and Franco Faccio, the esteemed conductor who led the premiere performance of Otello, an opera based on Shakespeare's tragedy Othello. And, back in the 1860s when Boito and Faccio were both young men in their twenties, they had teamed up
While Hamlet is often regarded as Shakespeare's most popular play, it's also his longest; a full performance can clock in at more than four hours. And the story is rife with interwoven plot elements and deceptive characters with uncertain motivations. So, Faccio and Boito had taken on a considerable challenge. Their new opera was premiered, with some success, in Genoa in 1865.
The real challenge came six years later, when the piece was first performed at La Scala. Perhaps realizing that their opera was now facing a far tougher audience, the two men made a number of revisions. It didn't help. he Milan production suffered from a number of flaws, and while a few of the opera's numbers were well-received, the event was ultimately deemed a fiasco. A disappointed Faccio withdrew the opera, forbidding any future productions, and the score pretty much disappeared -- for more than 130 years!
Then, early in the 21st century, the composer and conductor Anthony Barrese got word of a long-lost operatic Hamlet, with a libretto by Arrigo Boito. Intrigued, Barrese decided to track the opera down. After a good deal of detective work, and with help from Ricordi, the opera's original publisher, Barrese was able to obtain a microfilmed copy of Faccio's own manuscript, apparently the only remaining source for the music. Working from that, and later from original manuscript materials discovered in Ricordi's Milan archives, Barrese painstakingly transcribed and reconstructed the opera -- and he conducted its modern stage premiere at Opera Southwest, in Albuquerque, in 2014.
The result of all that work is a truly fascinating, and at times quite beautiful opera. Shakespeare's four-hour play has a storyline complex enough to rival even the most intricate opera plots. Yet Boito managed to preserve a remarkable number of the original drama's many interconnected elements. And, in an opera lasting less than two-and-a-half hours, that makes for almost non-stop intensity and action.
On WORLD OF OPERA, host Lisa Simeone presents Faccio's Hamlet from the 2016 Bregenz Festival, held each year in the lakeside city of Bregenz, at the western tip of Austria. The festival was launched just after World War II. At the time Bregenz had no theater. So, operas were performed on two barges moored on Lake Constance -- with the stage set on one barge, and the orchestra on the other!
The festival still presents operas at the side of the lake. But by now, they're performed in the strikingly designed Bregenz Festival Hall. The 2016 production of Faccio's Hamlet features tenor Pavel Cernoch in the title role, and soprano Iulia Maria Dan as Ophelia, with conductor Paolo Carignani leading the Prague Philharmonic Choir and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.