Last night’s premiere of Amleto at the Bregenzer Festspiele was a shot of adrenaline to the arm of the indoor opera house, which often lives in the shadow of its sibling on the lake, the festival’s crown jewel. It was my fifth indoors premiere, and, by a long shot, it was the most well-received performance there I’ve witnessed.
(photo courtesy of Bregenzer Festspiele)
With the festival’s new artistic director Elisabeth Sobotka moving away from her predecessor David Pountney’s habit of commissions and world premieres for the indoor theater with last year’s The Tales of Hoffman by Offenbach, it seems that now a fig leaf has been offered to recent tradition: the European “re-premiere” of a little-known work not performed on the continent since 1871 (or anywhere until the 2014 reconstruction by Anthony Barrese and staging by Albuquerque’s Opera Southwest), Franco Faccio’s Amleto. (Also, interestingly, Sobotka herself is a Faccio specialist.)
While I admit that I wasn’t here for the 2010 premiere of the much-lauded The Passenger (by Weinberg), I’ve otherwise seen the premieres run much of the gamut. In talking to folks both behind the scenes and in the audience over the years, it seems that each year from 2011 to 2014 improved (both the piece and its reception by audience and performers alike), and I’d have to say I largely agree. In order, those were Judith Weir’s Achterbahn (2011), Detlev Glanert’s Solaris (2012), André Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice (1982, premiered 2013), and H.K. Gruber’s Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald (2014). I’ll avoid giving tangential reviews of each here, but suffice it to say I genuinely enjoyed much of the latter three (and some music of the first, from what I remember). (Despite the questionable handling of race, that is. An unfortunate occurrence in most of them but particularly in Solaris, and – sigh – a modern hallmark of opera anyway…)
With Amleto, Sobotka is bringing 19th-century Italian opera – of the progressive, proto-verismo sort – to a stage once dominated by modern instrumental and vocal techniques and mores. That’s not to say that, as a whole, older works are “less than” (not at all…hello, Wagner). But, despite the inconsistency, I did greatly appreciate and respect the festival’s (Pountney’s?) preference for and willingness to take risks and commission and feature new works each year. In a canon-saturated economy, it seems that new productions of old works are far more important than new works. Knowing that I’d be seeing something genuinely new each year (along with the traditional fare and spectacle on the lake stage) was exciting. (Though, the realities of life do sink in, and the festival was tired of losing money on the premieres.)
All that, however, is not meant to hang a cloud over Faccio and librettist Boito, Barrese, and Sobotka, but rather to simply say that things are different now — not better or worse, just different. Considering last night’s performance in a vacuum, it was definitely a success, and I quite enjoyed it.
You can read all about the history of Amleto and Faccio here. Briefly, Faccio, a leading conductor in Italy (particularly at Milan’s La Scala) was an important figure in the scapigliatura movement. Known mostly as a conductor, he also composed some, including the little-known Amleto, which premiered in Genoa in 1865 and then was quickly shelved and forgotten after a disastrous 1871 La Scala debut. Reconstructing the score from piano reductions over several years, Anthony Barrese then resurrected the work in a 2014 debut by Opera Southwest. (Audio and video recordings featuring strong performances and a moderately traditional production by Opera Southwest are now available.)
Faccio’s score, though nonetheless in the Italian tradition, is forward-thinking and engaging, tending to opt for the dramatic than a melodious hit parade. Boito’s libretto greatly streamlines Shakespeare’s Hamlet for time, and the four acts run shy of 150 minutes (without intermission).
The Bregenz production was led by director Olivier Tambosi and set designer Frank Philipp Schlössmann. Tambosi is a fixture in Europe and the US, and Schlössmann’s work is seemingly everywhere Deutsche Grammophon has advertising lately, as his work for Katharina Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde from 2015’s Bayreuth festival can be seen wherever DVDs are sold. The performers and production each stood on their own, but their sum was much greater than their considerable parts. The stark sets and striking use (or absence of) color throughout — with possibly a hint of Tim Burton — helped to propel the narrative. The production team also placed action where there otherwise may not have been any (e.g., overtures and other instrumental passages, underneath an aria, etc.). Two examples stand out. For the opening overture, the orchestra begins after the curtains have already open to display (an unconscious?) Amleto laying on the ground under a lowered light rig. (Is he dreaming? Is he already feeling the psychological pressure of all the lights (eyes?) being on him?) Later, in the overture to Act III, instead of beginning with King Claudius at prayer, we see him awake in his chambers and slowly walk to the chapel, adding weight where the previously was little. Also, much is done with Laertes when he’s not singing. He’s occasionally lurking in the background when Amleto and Ofelia are near one another.
To continue begging the question as to whether we’re watching Amleto in or out of his mind, a seemingly outward-facing curtain is at the back of the stage through Act I. And during Amleto’s first duets with both Ofelia and The Ghost (of his father), he curiously lies down. Is he dreaming or hallucinating?
And nearly everyone who’s not Amleto sports an Illuminati-esque eye on their clothes. Is this to represent their looking at (and putting psychological pressure on) Amleto, or representing to the audience how Amleto sees them? In his incomplete attempt to don a mime’s makeup in Act II, is he looking to become anonymous and erase his identity, becoming just another faceless clown in the court? As he descends further into madness, the makeup then starts to gradually fade in the second half.
One curious musical device that I don’t believe was used — at least so extensively — by Opera Southwest is that of offstage orchestral forces. There seemed to be a separate and permanent offstage brass (and more? hard to tell at times) section that remained throughout the whole of the work. I thought it had to do with the court in the first act, but then it remained. Perhaps this musical schizophrenia is to be reminiscent of Amleto’s gradual dissolution, though I could be reading too far into the lines. (I know it wasn’t a matter of real estate — Gruber’s orchestra for Wiener Wald dwarfed Faccio’s.)
The cast was quite strong overall, with standout performances by Pavel Černoch (Amleto), Iulia Maria Dan (Ofelia), Dshamilja Kaiser (Gertrude), and Claudio Sgura (Claudio). The two truly excellent moments of the evening belonged to the trio of Černoch, Kaiser, and Gianluca Buratto (The Ghost), and Dan’s final aria, both in Act III. That one-two punch set an impossibly high bar for the fourth act. And both in and out of the pit, Paolo Carignani led the Vienna Symphony Orchestra through a dynamic and moving run of the score.
Regardless of how one feels about old works and new, last night’s production and performance was an all-around success. I’ve not seen an audience applaud for a work in the indoor theater here as I did last night (along with one heckle from the balcony for the director…can’t win them all). I’ll be curious to see where not only this production but the work as a whole heads after this. As for the festival, Bregenz is getting its indoor stride, as next year will feature the certainly-not-new Moses in Ägypten by Rossini (alongside Bizet’s Carmen on the lake).
(And as for Pountney, he’s busy getting his Ring cycle off the ground in Chicago, for which Das Rheingold premieres in October. See you there.)