ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For nearly 150 years, rumors of an Italian opera based on the original text of “Hamlet” circulated across the globe. But no one knew what had happened to the score.
Driven first by his own “obsessive” personality, coupled with a passion for the original Shakespeare, Opera Southwest artistic director/conductor Anthony Barrese rescued Franco Faccio’s creation from obscurity in the archives of Casa Ricordi in Milan, Italy.
The Albuquerque opera company will present the New World premiere of the lost opera “Amleto” on Oct. 26. New Mexico tenor Alex Richardson will sing the lead; soprano Abla Hamza will sing the role of Ophelia. The opera will be sung in Italian with English supertitles.
“I’d always heard that this opera existed, but I couldn’t find it anywhere,” Barrese said. He discovered it with the help of a Milan-based musicologist.
“They sent me a microfilm and I printed it out – all 600-plus pages of it.”
Those pages were in the composer’s own handwriting, sans dynamics or directions. Barrese spent a year interpreting it, even flying to Milan in 2004 to study the original for a week.
“It started out as a curiosity and became an obsession,” he said. “The more I uncovered, the more I wanted to uncover.”
The opera has not been performed since 1871.
Faccio was a 25-year-old fledgling composer at the time. He set the piece to a libretto penned by Arrigo Boito, who had written librettos for Verdi’s final two operas, “Otello” and “Falstaff.”
The opera premiered in Genova, Italy, in 1865 to acclaim. The composer revived it at La Scala in Milan in 1871. But the leading tenor Tiberini was sick and had lost his voice by opening night. Distraught by the disastrous reception, the composer withdrew the opera and it was never performed again.
“He didn’t take it well,” Barrese said. “And he never composed again.”
Many composers have based operas on Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy. But, with the exception of French composer Ambroise Thomas’ version, none are regularly produced. And none draw directly from the original text.
Faccio’s approach was different.
“The text is so close to the Shakespeare,” Barrese said. “There are parts that are literal translations of the Shakespeare. Whole speeches were lifted almost verbatim.”
Audiences can expect to hear “To be or not to be,” “Get thee to a nunnery” and more. And every act begins with evocative themes as the drama unfolds.
“The music is very much in the vein of 19th-century Italian opera,” Barrese continued. “It sounds like middle Verdi – as if Verdi adapted what he thought Wagner sounded like. It’s a mishmash.”
The Las Cruces born-and-raised tenor Richardson had never heard of the piece when he first met with and then auditioned for Barrese and Opera Southwest stage director David Bartholomew two years ago.
“I had no idea it existed at all,” he said in a telephone interview from his New York home. Additionally, he hadn’t read the play in either high school or college. He attended Las Cruces High School, then the University of Colorado, ending with a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music.
“I think it’s incredibly exciting,” Richardson continued. “The score is very, very dramatic. I think there are some beautiful moments in it. The music definitely supports the drama of the piece. It’s thickly orchestrated.”
Most operas come armed by both history and tradition – recordings and videos of past productions. With “Amleto” there was no reference point.
“It’s the needle-in-the-haystack work,” Barrese said. “We have no tradition. We’re thinking, ‘Well, it was written in the 1860s. What did other operas sound like? What does this really sound like? Could this piece enter the standard repertoire?'”
Bartholomew also knew nothing about the opera.
“I’m a pianist, so I played it through,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is quite interesting.’ It was very stage-worthy. I was very impressed.”
Each musical theme opens with a prelude, making for easy set changes, he said. “It also sets the mood.”
The opera begins with a grand ballroom scene honoring the king’s coronation. But don’t expect a fashion show of Elizabethan finery.
“It is not in period,” Bartholomew said. “It is turn-of-the-century right at the peak of Freudian analysis.
“I wanted relevance to this century,” he said. “And I wanted to explore the Freudian Oedipus complex and the mother thing. And Ophelia going off the deep end.”
The singers will wear late-Victorian to early-20th-century fashions.
“I’m not going to say ‘Downton Abbey,'” Bartholomew added. “The costumes are from around 1912.”
“Hamlet” involves the largest cast Opera Southwest has ever staged, Bartholomew said. Besides a chorus of 40 and an orchestra comprised of 46 musicians, the piece features eight spear carriers, four dancers, 13 principals and an onstage ensemble that includes a harp and a string quartet.
“We’re dealing with big numbers – not Met numbers or Chicago numbers, but big for Albuquerque,” he added.
Richardson carries much of the weight. He sings all but three small sections of the score.
“It’s a range-y piece,” he said. “I have a lot of high singing to do. Hamlet is a very angry character. Hamlet’s kind of crazy. He’s dealing with avenging his father’s death. He’s so focused on this revenge that it kind of consumes him.
“The pacing is going to be the most challenging part,” he continued. “I’ve got to have the stamina and all the energy I need to make it to the end.”
The cast will perform the work to piano accompaniment in Baltimore the day before its local debut, giving the singers a chance to work out the kinks.
“I think it has a very good chance” at becoming part of the standard operatic repertoire, Bartholomew said. “We’re getting good word-of-mouth. Some wonderful critics from around the country are coming to review it.”
Artistic directors from companies across the United States have said they plan to attend, he added.
“This is by far the most high-profile thing we’ve ever done.”