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The Command Center

A Hamlet Opera Sleuth Mystery

Anthony Barrese
COMMANDOpera enjoys a great read whenever one can be found, yet a modern day mystery surrounding the recovery of a twice performed 140 year old Opera has never come to light. Until now. The brilliantly rising Conductor Anthony Barrese was at the center of this drama, and wrote a thrilling first person narrative on the experience. This is a must read:

‘In the Spring of 2003 I began researching and preparing a critical edition of Franco Faccio’s little known opera Amleto ( libretto by Arrigo Boito). The opera was written in 1865 and premiered in Genova. A La Scala revival in 1871 was a complete disaster and the opera has not been performed since.

I first became aware of an Italian Hamlet opera with a Boito libretto during my first season on the music staff of Sarasota Opera in the winter/spring of 2002. At that time I began trying to locate a piano vocal score or some other source material. I was living in New York City, and took advantage of the inter-library loan program to locate what seemed to be a piano vocal score at the University of California at Berkeley library. I put in an order and waited months, but the score was never delivered. Meanwhile, I sent an e-mail to my friend Vito Lo Re, an accomplished composer and conductor living in Milan, and asked him if he could uncover a score of Amleto. Around Christmas 2002, he sent me photocopies of some extraced, published scenes from the opera and said that he was unable to find anything else.

During my second season at Sarasota Opera (2003), I got in touch with David Lawton who had very generously lent me his score for a production of L’incoronazione di Poppea that I conducted the previous summer. David Lawton is a musicologist and conductor who has worked with the Verdi Critical Edition series for a number of years. He encouraged me to contact Gabriel Dotto, another accomplished musicologist living in Milan who had formerly worked with Ricordi. I had heard that many of the archives were destroyed during the war, and I wasn’t sure whether Ricordi would still have the autograph from Amleto. He replied:

As luck (and some rather heroic effort on the part of Ricordi management sixty years ago ) would have it, no autographs of the historical archive were destroyed in the war, as the collection was secretly taken to a safe location.  (Though the

“production copies” of scores, most of the performing material, the hire and editorial libraries, etc, were lost during the bombings).

That, he said, was the end of the good news. The bad news was that Ricordi was at the present moment moving into a new home at the Biblioteca Brera in the heart of Milan. Formerly the archives were located on the far outskirts of town. He said there might be some hope of obtaining a copy of the score if it had been copied onto a microfilm , which could then be loaned to me. He sent my letter off to Maria Pia Ferraris of the Ricordi Archives to check and see if such a microfilm existed. Otherwise I would be out of luck for at least another year while Ricordi completed its move.

After some time had passed, the New York Public Library finally contacted me and informed me that the “piano vocal score” of Amleto was in fact available at the U.C. Berkeley library and that they could not get it themselves, but that I might be able to get a copy of it by contacting the head of Rare Books at Berkeley. This department was very helpful and after a small transaction sent me a microfilm of the “piano vocal score” which turned out to be the same few extraced scenes that my friend Vito had just sent me at Christmas.

Again months went by and I heard nothing from Ricordi. I was on my way to Opera North in the summer of 2003 when I was contacted by Maria Pia Ferraris who said that Ricordi did indeed have a microfilm of the autograph and that I could order it.

The microfilm arrived in at my home in Chicago and was forwarded to me in New Hampshire where I began the painstaking task of transcribing the manuscript note by note. At the same time a friend of mine found a copy (again a microfilm) of Boito’s libretto at the Performing Arts Library in New York. She made a photocopy of it and brought it to New Hampshire. The libretto was especially important since Faccio’s handwriting was difficult to decipher, and the quality of the autograph manuscript was poor. Little by little pieces of the puzzle were coming together.

The problems with the autograph were numerous. First of all, since it probably had not been touched in almost a century, the staff lines were faded so badly that on many pages they were not visible at all. I found that if I could at least identify the bass line and vocal lines, everything else fell into place logically according to standard rules of harmony and counterpoint. It was extremely exciting to be in the midst of this, in effect bringing it back into life.

I finished the process of transcribing every note from the manuscript a few days before Christmas 2003. After that I began writing the piano vocal score and engraving the full and piano vocal scores. Phillip Gossett was incredibly generous in helping me figure out a lot of the handwriting idiosyncrasies in the score.

That winter at Sarasota Opera (2004) the Apprentice Artist’s scenes program performed an excerpt from Act III of Amleto. The scene we did was a trio in which Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius and, while confronting his mother, the ghost of his father returns to warn him not to waver in his purpose (Act III scene iv in the Shakespeare play).

Sarasota Opera Apprentice Artists sang the following roles: Emily Ezzie – la Regina, John Tirrano – Amleto, John Taylor – lo Spettro, Aaron Silverman – Polonio, and I accompanied on the piano.

It was very interesting to put the scene together and everyone had a wonderful time doing it. There was definitely a sense that we were doing something unique, and the singers gave an impassioned performance.

That summer, while I was in Milan teaching a class on the Italian Futurist movement in music, I met with Cristiano Ostinelli of the Casa Ricordi (the vice direttore generale) and he granted me exclusive rights for the first performance of the piece. After the first performance Ricordi has the right to buy me out of the rights. I also met in person Maria Pia Ferraris, the head archivist of the newly opened Ricordi Archives in the biblioteca brera. She allowed me to peruse the original manuscript as well as the only piano vocal score in existence: an autograph manuscript of Faccio’s own arrangement. This had a number of differences from the score (most notably an enormous 2nd act cabaletta for Amleto that was cut after the premiere).

There were many interesting people working in the Archives that summer, and I spent hours looking at both autograph manuscripts. I also went to the Milan conservatory library and made a photocopy of the only existing book written on the opera. It’s a little volume by the Fascist musicologist Rafaello DeRensis called Amleto di A. Boito and was written in the 1920s. It provided more interesting information, and I returned to the United States to begin writing the critical notes. I soon discovered that as much as I thought the transcription of the piece was painstaking, compiling and editing the critical notes was more so. I completed the work in late December 2004.

Since then Philip Gossett has brought to my attention yet another complete libretto which reflects the text used in the 1871 La Scala revival: Arrigo Boito, Tutti gli scritti a cura di Piero Nardi, A. Mondadori editore, Milano 1942. This libretto reflects numerous changes between the 1865 and 1871 versions’.

Franco Faccio
After reading all of this, COMMANDOpera connected with Maestro Barrese to ask a few pertinent questions which were left unanswered. Given the period of the work, where exactly did the work fit musically was the first thing in this mind. The conductor advised that this Hamlet sat musically in the mid Romantic Italian period, combined with shades of Wagner, yet structurally looking forward to Verismo. The composer tried to stay away from the idea of a ‘numbered’ opera, with mixed success. He was impressed how closely Maestro Boito modeled the libretto (his first ever) on the Shakespeare play considering it to be rather advanced in experimentation of this writing style. This Hamlet comprises four acts with two scenes in each. The work does not have an overture so to speak, but what is there is definitively Verdian in texture and leads directly into a party scene similar to La Traviata. Where Claudius is concerned the music is festive, however the chords immediately take on a dark, sombre hue whenever Hamlet is singing. An extraordinary notation on the Faccio Hamlet is the beginning of the ghost scene: 4 solo celli. Idiomatically unique (if rare) to Italian works. The only other examples of the Maestro could think of were the overture to William Tell, the Act 1 love duet in Otello, and the music preceding Cavaradossi’s ‘E lucevan le Stelle’ in Tosca. The Act 2 finale features a opera within the opera which is strikingly reminiscent of the 2nd act of Verdi’s Macbeth. Really? COMMANDOpera was in thrall at that point of the conversation. Maestro Barrese then said the best music is left for the last: the hauntingly beautiful, horrific mad scene of Ophelia. Shot through with shades of Bellini, the music brilliantly follows her excruciatingly towards death.

Opera Southwest logo
Indeed the Faccio Hamlet will be mounted in a big way at Opera Southwest in October of 2014. The opening night performance is scheduled to be live streamed globally, with a High Def DVD and CD recorded as well for later release. Obviously Maestro Barrese will be on the podium for these performances, as well as noted Texan stage director David Bartholomew who will oversee sets and costumes. COMMANDOpera was not given definitive understanding as to what period the work would be set in, however it was made clear there would be ‘elements of Shakespeare’ within. Maestro Barrese and Mr. Bartholomew have collaborated on a number of productions, so this Hamlet appears to be in correct hands. No announcements on the vocal talent to be engaged will be forthcoming until next year.

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