Composition and the Premiere
The history of Amleto is very brief and derives from the only two sources I was able to locate, both by the same author: “L’Amleto” di A. Boito, con lettere inedite di Boito, Mariani e Verdi DeRensis, Raffaello, 1927, Ancona, La Lucerna. Franco Faccio e Verdi, carteggi e documenti inediti DeRensis, Raffaello, 1934, Milano, Fratelli Treves Editori.
The only thing we know about pre-compositional decisions has to do with the libretto which DeRensis said was written specifically for Faccio by Boito. The two schoolmates had already collaborated on a Cantata patria in 1860, and Boito’s infamous ode saffica col bicchiere alla mano which so infuriated Verdi, was written and read at banquet in tribute to Faccio.
It is unclear how the choice of Hamlet came about, but Boito began work even before the premiere of Faccio’s first opera I profughi fiamminghi (La Scala 1863), and completed the libretto on July 2, 1862 in Poland.
The opera was premiered on May 30, 1865 at Genova’s Teatro Carlo Felice. The cast included some of the finest singers of the day: Mario Tiberini – Amleto, Angiolina Ortolani-Tiberini – Ofelia, Elena Corani – Regina, Antonio Cotogni – Re, Baragiolo – lo Spettro, Angelo Mariani – conductor. According to DeRensis the work was accepted at Carlo Felice because of the personal intervention of Boito’s Conservatory professor Alberto Mazzucato, who was friends with Mariani.
The critics were unanimous in their praise, if not of the work itself, then of the promise shown in the young composer. On May 31, the Gazzetta di Genovawrote:
The opera was generally applauded at the end of the first act, at Ofelia and Amleto’s duet, at the finale of the second act, at Ofelia’s canzone in the third, and at the funeral march of the fourth. The young maestro was called to the stage many times.
That same day, the paper “Movimento” wrote:
Last night the doors of Carlo Felice opened for the awaited performance of Franco Faccio’s new score, Amleto. The expectations were high for the premiere, because doubt had surrounded the reputation of the new type of music attempted by the young maestro. The public therefore rushed in great numbers and with an attitude of one who wishes to judge with circumspection, and, let us also say, with severity. But from expectations of doubt they changed their mind, and after having waited to think about it, a decision was made; they applauded and applauded with spontaneity, with conscience, with enthusiasm.
A more personal, if not more biased account comes from Mazzucato and was sent to Faccio’s teacher Stafano Ronchetti-Monteviti. The long letter was published in full in the “Giornale della Società del Quartetto” and in Franco Facio e Verdi, DeRensis reprints the following selections:
Amleto, which had its world premiere last night, aroused unusual and profound emotions in the genovese public, which celebrated your distinguished student with every type of flattering reception. The curtain-calls for the maestro and the performers were unanimous, insistent, continuous, and ever warmer as the imaginative work unfolded before the eyes of the listeners who were highly surprised with the truth of its conception, the newness of form, the passion of the melodies, the ensemble harmony, and of the robust skill that dominates the whole score…
The majority of Italians continue to repeat the stale refrain that the art of composition and creativity is lost in Italy. This is blasphemy I say! I don’t know if it comes more from stupidity or malevolence: this blasphemy that unfortunately thousands of mouths go around parroting, certainly unaware of the harm it does to art, artists, and to the country. As long as we see young Italians give as their second work a creation as serious and strong as that of Amleto, rest assured, my dear colleague, that Italian art is nowhere near death…
Amleto’s victory was legitimate, and I am happy because I see in it a new consecration of our ideas, and you must be doubly happy for it, and for the triumph of these ideas, and for the pleasure of having educated a powerful talent like Franco Faccio in the Italian art…
Verdi, for his part, is reported to have said “Who can understand anything among so much noise? Couldn’t they do things more quietly?” And to Maffei he supposedly confided: “I believe that if Faccio really has the talent to make it, it’s necessary for him to distance himself from conservatory and aesthetics professors, and to neither study, nor listen to music for ten years.”
Interim and La Scala production
After the premiere, Amleto lay dormant for nearly six years while its authors embarked on a number of musical and extra-musical adventures. In 1866 both Boito and Faccio joined the Italian army to fight alongside Garibaldi. In addition to his purely militaristic excursions, Faccio used the opportunity to travel extensively throughout Europe, perusing Beethoven’s autograph of Fidelio in Berlin in addition to getting to know Tannhauser and Lohengrin. As his European travels came to an end in 1867, he traveled to Copenhagen on a steamship named Hamlet, and was amused to see other ships named after Shakespeare’s tragedy. While in Denmark, he made a special trip to Elsinore and visited the Royal Castle where he had the feeling that at any moment one could imagine seeing the “wandering and troubled shade of the assassinated king.”
It was also during these years that Faccio began conducting, which would prove to be his true calling. Amleto, though, was never far from his thoughts, and his friends and family continued to urge him to seek another production. In a letter written on February 27, 1867, his friend the Countess Maffei chided him for missing the opportunity to present Amleto to the Queen of Prussia when he had the chance.
Faccio also continued to compose after the premiere of Amleto, writing among other things, a sinfonia in fa and a quartetto. Sometime in 1870 Giovanni Ricordi commissioned him to write a third opera, Patria, based on a play by Sardou. Verdi himself intervened on Faccio’s behalf to try to secure the rights to the play, but Sardou, hoping that Verdi himself would set the drama to music, refused.
The disastrous premiere of Boito’s Mefistofele at La Scala in 1868 added to the growing necessity of a compositional success by Boito and Faccio, self-appointed representatives of the “art of the future” in Italy. In early 1870 we hear from the “Gazzetta Musicale” of a possibility (eventually unrealized) of staging Amleto in Florence.
The long awaited revival was eventually slated for the 1870-1871 season at La Scala. According to DeRensis, the performance was made possible for one reason: the Hamlet libretto by Carré and Barbier (written for Thomas) was unanimously judged a profanation. Verdi is reported to have said:
Poor Shakespeare! How they have poorly adapted him. What have they done with that character of Hamlet, so great and original? Where is that strange, superior, and sublime atmosphere that one breathes reading the English text? I had the impression of a comic opera taken seriously. Thomas has great merit if he is able to obtain a success with a libretto lacking in ensemble and details.
For the La Scala production Mario Tiberini returned to interpret the role of Amleto. He was again joined by some of the most famous singers of the time: Virginia Pozzi-Branzutti – Ofelia, Bulli-Paoli – La Regina, Bertolasi – Il Re, De Giuli Angeli – lo Spettro. La Scala’s conductor, Eugenio Terziani, yielded the baton to Faccio.
According to DeRensis the rehearsals began smoothly and the dress rehearsal was set for January 16, 1871. The very next day, Tiberini got sick and the opera was postponed for more than 2 weeks. Eventually rehearsals began again, and Tiberini got sick again. A second dress rehearsal was given and the La Scala Theater Commission judged Tiberini fit to sing, despite Faccio’s protestations. February 12th saw the opening night, and what was to be the last performance of Amleto in history.
Despite good intentions, Tiberini was completely voiceless that night. DeRensis writes that the performance was uncertain and disorganized, and describes it as follows:
Tiberini, completely voiceless and disoriented, did not emit one note with the accent of that great artist that he was, he lowered the pitches, and did away with entire phrases. He, and with much visible anguish, rendered comprehension of the opera impossible. Faccio directed apperntly calm, but in reality very disturbed. Some ensemble pieces like the dance and brindisi [Act I i], the Violoncello prelude [Act I ii], the Spettro’s Racconto [Act I ii], the Pater noster [Act III, i] – which procured Bertolasi two curtain calls – the third act trio, the fourth act funeral march (welcomed with roaring applause and two curtain calls for the composer), saved the production from a shipwreck.
Faccio, in a letter written to Verdi a few days later, confesses to much of the same:
some pieces, inferior in the opinion of me and Giulio [Ricordi], for example a waltz and brindisi in the first act, were appreciated and applauded because they were performed as the author had written them. Others, of a more intrinsic worth in our opinion, passed in silence or were disapproved just because they were entrusted to the protagonist.
As Ricordi noted in the “Gazzetta Musicale”: “L’Amleto si è rappresentato senza Amleto.” After the performance, Faccio, so disturbed by this fiasco, immediately withdrew the piece, and refused to have it performed again.
Although Amleto was never produced again in his lifetime, his student Antonio Smareglia noted that it was always very dear to his heart. This is perhaps best (and heartbreakingly) illustrated by a sign that hung from the harmony room door in the Milan Conservatory the day after the La Scala performance that read:
chiuso per la morte di Amleto