Faccio, Boito and Verdi

by Philip Gossett

In the “Argomenti d’opere” that Verdi noted in his Copialettere, printed in facsimile but not transcribed at the beginning of the Appendix,[1] he began with three plays by William Shakespeare, Re Lear (a project he chased throughout the 1850s, but never succeeded in finding what he considered an adequate libretto), Amleto, and Tempesta (two plays he did not expend any further energy on). Certainly he could not have been pleased when Franco Faccio produced his own setting of Hamlet for Genoa in 1865, revised for Milan in 1871, to a libretto (his first Shakesperian effort) by Arrigo Boito.

Faccio and Boito were both identified with the Scapigliatura, a group of hot-heads from the youth of Milan who, among other things, wanted to renovate approaches to opera. In fact, in 1862, after preparing for Verdi the text of his Inno delle Nazioni, Boito had read his Ode Saffica, “All’arte italiane,” in which he complained that the musical art was “brutto come lezza di lupinare” (see his letter to Clarina Maffei of 15 October 1863, [2]) still rankling at the words of Boito’s poem in which he complained about the older generation of opera composers, of which Verdi then considered himself, correctly, to be the main exponent. Verdi considered what he took to be a personal insult also an indictment of Faccio. The verses that so offended Verdi constituted the sixth strophe of Boito’s poem, which went:

Forse già nacque chi sovra l’altare
Rizzerà l’arte, verecondo e puro,
Su quell’altar brutatto come un muro
di lupinare.[3]

But, thanks to the careful ministrations of Giulio Ricordi, Verdi reconciled with Boito so that the latter became his trusted librettist during the 1880s, revising the composer’s Simon Boccanegra in 1880/81, and then writing ex-novo the librettos for Verdi’s two late operas to Shakespeare, Otello and Falstaff. In reconciling himself to working with Boito, Verdi followed his sense that Faccio was the right director for the La Scala orchestra, which he took over as principal conductor in 1871, writing to Faccio during the 1870s and entrusting him with the La Scala premieres of Aida, as early as 1872, Simon Boccanegra and Otello. Faccio relinquished his post due to illness in 1889.

You will hear the Milanese revision of Faccio’s Amleto. Although the opera did not have the success its composer hoped for in Milan, hence his turn to full-time conducting, there can be little doubt that this is how its composer and his librettist wanted the work remembered. Boito was a genius at turning an intractable play into a possible libretto, as he proved to Verdi for his Otello, simply eliminating Shakespeare’s first act (in Venice) and putting its most important action into the second act (creating the duet that concludes that act). This was not a simple matter with Hamlet, Shakespeare’s longest play and it was what his librettists in the 1850s for Re Lear failed to find a way to do, not succeeding in reconciling the fate of Lear with the fate of the blinded Gloucester. One version was too long, another, by eliminating Gloucester altogether, too short.

Boito and Faccio turned the first act into two scenes: the one celebrating the new King, with the appearance at the festivities of Ophelia, and of Horatio and Marcellus, the other with the vision Hamlet would have of the ghost of his father on a platform above the castle of Elsinore. In the second act, Hamlet is seen in the first scene pretending to be mad before Ophelia, and in the second the festive march leading to the entrance of the players and their performance to “catch the conscience of the King,” a march that dominates the scene and was considered important even by those who did not otherwise like the opera. Act III is devoted in its first scene to Hamlet and the King in prayer and then Hamlet with the Queen with the murder of Polonius and the reappearance of the ghost. In the second scene is the return of Laertes, and the madness and death by drowning of Ophelia. The fourth and final act has only a single scene, beginning with Hamlet’s encounter with the gravediggers. There follows the appearance of Laertes, with sword drawn, and then, immediately, the scene in which all are killed. As the curtain descends, Hamlet sings to the dead Ophelia. Gone altogether are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and more important all hint of Fortinbras and the dangers that the state of Denmark faces has been sacrificed. Boito originally included a second scene in Act IV, but for Milan absorbed the concluding scene (Shakespeare’s Act V, Scene 2) within the graveyard scene (Shakespeare’s Act V, Scene 1). Shakespeare’s version is, to be sure, better, but is there a better way to cut the text as an opera? One might argue similarly about Act I of Otello.

Boito only wanted the opportunity after Falstaff to provide Verdi with a properly proportioned text for King Lear, Verdi’s oft-desired opera, an opera for which he had tried to interest Piave, Cammarano, and most importantly Somma, his librettist for Un ballo in maschera, but the composer balked. He considered himself too old (he was over 80 by that time) to undertake the laborious work of writing another opera at that point. And so Boito never got to complete the work with Shakespeare that he had begun in the mid-1860s with the libretto for his friend, Franco Faccio’s Amleto.

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[1] Franco Faccio wrote his version of Hamlet, as Amleto, in 1865, then revised it in 1871, to a libretto by Arrigo Boito. The page is found at the beginning of the Appendix (as Tav. XI) in the publication of Verdi’s Copialettere, ed. Gaetano Cesari and Alessandro Luzio (Commissione Esecutiva per l’Onoranze a Giuseppe Verdi nel primo centenario della nascita: Milan, 1913), preceding p. 423. The first person to talk about the page was Martin Chusid in a lecture he delivered at The University of Chicago many years ago. The presence of Victor Hugo’s [Le] Roi s’amuse on this page of the Copialettere guarantees that it must have been written before Verdi began serious work on his Rigoletto in 1849.

[2] Copialettere, cit., p. 307.

[3] See Arrigo Boito: Tutti gli scritti, ed. by Piero Nardi (A. Mondadori: Verona, 1942), p. 1373.