Opera Southwest premieres long-forgotten Hamlet opera

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For Artistic Director Anthony Barrese this was a labor of passion, perhaps obsession. But labor certainly and nonetheless a formidable task. The fruits of his painstaking work at long last came to fruition on Sunday at the National Hispanic Cultural Center when Opera Southwest gave the stunning premiere of the long lost and forgotten “Amleto” (Hamlet) by Franco Faccio. The opera had been performed only once before, the 1865 premiere given by an ailing tenor badly received, causing Faccio to withdraw the work and never compose again.

This opera might well have lain buried forever. Why go to the extensive 11-year-long process of resurrecting and re-constructing it virtually note by note? The composer Faccio is unknown but the the librettist was Arrigo Boito, who wrote the libretto to Verdi’s “Otello” and “Falstaff” and a composer in his own right for his Wagnerian “Mefistofele.” The search and subsequent restoration was merited on that basis alone.

Given that the relationship of sung language to spoken language is about three or four to one in terms of duration, any adaptation of the original play by the Shakespeare author (whoever he was) will necessarily be a condensation. But unlike the French “Hamlet” opera by Thomas, Boito attempted to use as much as possible in literal translation. Still many speeches are necessarily reduced to a mere few lines. The aria “Essere o non essere (to be or not to be),” for example, is about half the length. The story, however, stays intact.

Make no mistake—this is Grand Opera, rather than the brooding of the melancholy Dane. Each age re-interprets past works through its own sensibilities. The 19th century gave us “happy endings” to Romeo and even King Lear. Clearly the story is seen through the eyes of that era when big, bold gesture was the theatrical norm. And may well be closer to the Elizabethan theater for all anyone knows. Hamlet (Alex Richardson) is no shrinking violet and a far cry from our “realistic” portrayals of today .

Shannon De Vine gives a stentorian and dominating King Claudius, commanding the stage from the very first scene. His prayer which prevents Hamlet from killing him, is one of the highlights musically. Abla Lynn Hamza gives, as dictated through the music, a very operatic rather than psychologically warped Ophelia, with a mesmerizing aria that fuses together her three mad songs.

As Queen Gertrude, Caroline Worra comes into her own in the second half. She sings a superb duet with Hamlet before launching into an arresting aria full of the guilt she feels, torn between husband and son. In much too small a role, Javier Gonzales sings a richly-colored Laertes.

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The play within a play, “The Mousetrap,” is cleverly framed as a Baroque cantata sung by Jonathan Charles Tay, so impressive last weekend in the Serenade by Britten.

Barrese, who knows more about this work than anyone alive, conducts what must be considered a definitive version. Stage Director David Bartholomew always seems to have an infallible hand, managing here a huge cast and chorus onstage for much of the opera in a Globe Theater-style set with a winding staircase.

For all intents this is a premiere of a new work, the first for Opera Southwest during my tenure, and represents a step up to another level of achievement beyond the care and enthusiasm that goes into all its productions. Bravo! Certainly it comes a welcome respite from the endless stream of “Traviatas” and “Madam Butterflies.”

“Amleto” concludes witha performances at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 31 and 2 p.m. Nov. 2 at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, 1701 Fourth SW. Visit operasouthwest.org or call 243-0591 or 724-4771 for tickets, which range from $12-$82.

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