Rescued from Obscurity: Franco Faccio's Intriguing 'Hamlet'

ACT ONE opens at the palace of Claudius, the new King of Denmark. There's a gala celebration underway. Claudius has just married his former sister-in-law, Gertrude. She had been the wife of the Claudius's brother, the former King, who died quite recently -- in the opera, it's been barely a month. Prince Hamlet, Gertrude's son, is plainly unhappy about her quick remarriage to his uncle.

In the opening scene, Faccio presents an ambitious set of musical contrasts. The carefree celebration is juxtaposed with Hamlet's grief over his father's death, and anger at his mother's marriage. The merrymaking is also interspersed with a dire sequence in which Hamlet learns that a ghost -- apparently the spirit of his dead father -- has been seen on the castle ramparts. He's told about the sighting by his friends Horatio and Marcellus, and eventually leaves with them, hoping to see this ghost for himself.

The scene changes to a guard station, outside the palace, where Hamlet is almost immediately confronted by the spirit. In a frightening sequence, the ghost identifies itself as "the injured soul" of Hamlet's father, and claims that his brother Claudius killed him, by dripping poison into his ear while he was sleeping. The Ghost demands justice, and Hamlet promises to avenge his father's death.

ACT TWO begins in a hall, back inside the castle. Hamlet has been acting strangely and Polonius, the court chamberlain, explains the Prince's behavior to the King and Queen. He says Hamlet has been driven mad by his love for Polonius's daughter, Ophelia.

When Hamlet enters, they all hide, and watch. Hamlet gives the famous monologue, "To be or not to be"  -- in Italian, "Essere o non essere."  Ophelia then enters and confronts Hamlet. She had thought the two were in love, and now feels Hamlet has abandoned her. Hamlet responds in another famous passage, repeatedly saying to Ophelia, "Fatti monachella!" -- "Get thee to a nunnery!"

Polonius then returns, announcing that a travelling company of actors and singers has arrived. Hamlet gives instructions that the company should stage a specific play:  "The Horrible Assassination of King Gonzaga."

That night, as the play is presented, Hamlet explains the action to Claudius and Gertrude. The drama portrays the murder of King Gonzaga as happening in precisely the same way the Ghost said Claudius poisoned Hamlet's father.  

The King reacts with horror, demanding that the play be stopped, and runs from the room. Hamlet is gleeful, saying Claudius is a mouse, and has fallen into his trap -- leaving the assembled crowd astonished as the act ends.

ACT THREE begins in the castle, in a room hung with tapestries. King Claudius is praying, wracked by guilt, while Hamlet listens in secret. The King's prayer makes it obvious that he actually did murder Hamlet's father. The two men are alone in the room, giving

Hamlet the perfect opportunity to kill Claudius, and take his revenge. But he decides to wait -- thinking that if Claudius dies while praying, he might earn heaven's forgiveness. Hamlet leaves the room. Claudius finishes his prayer, and he leaves as well.

Gertrude then appears, along with Polonius. He urges Gertrude to confront Hamlet, and tell him stop to stop raving about Claudius, and the old king's death. Then, with Hamlet approaching, Polonius hides behind a tapestry.

Hamlet appears and angrily denounces his mother over her marriage to Polonius, and her possible role in the old king's murder. Hamlet draws his knife, and Gertrude is terrified. From behind the tapestry, Polonius cries out, fearing for Gertrude's safety.

Hearing this, Hamlet whirls and stabs through the tapestry. He knows he has struck someone, and thinks it might be the King himself -- until Polonius stumbles out and falls dead. Hamlet and Gertrude continue their confrontation. Gertrude assails Hamlet for killing Polonius, and Hamlet condemns his mother over her alliance with Claudius, whom he calls a monstrous "baboon king." 

Just as it seems Hamlet might harm his mother, he again sees the Ghost of his dead father. The spirit tells Hamlet to stop his "blind fury," and remember his true goal:  the death of Claudius. Hamlet speaks to the ghost, and even points the spirit out to Gertrude. But she can see nothing, and accuses Hamlet of madness.

The scene changes to a quiet park near the castle. Claudius is there, seeking refuge when he hears yelling in the distance. An angry mob appears, led by Laertes, the son of Polonius. Laertes knows his father is dead, and thinks Claudius must be responsible.

Just then, Laertes's young sister Ophelia appears. She's in mourning for her father, and distraught over losing Hamlet's love, and she's clearly going mad. Laertes tries to calm her. He says he'll avenge their father's death. But when he angrily turns to the King, Claudius says that it was Hamlet who killed Polonius, and the two men leave to find the Prince.

Ophelia stays behind. Behaving more and more erratically, she wades between rushes, into a stream. She disappears for a moment, and her body then appears, suspended lifeless under the water, in the moonlight.

ACT FOUR begins in a cemetery, where a gravedigger is working. Hamlet approaches, and the gravedigger produces a skull from the earth. Hamlet asks if he knows whom the skull belonged to. The gravedigger says it was the old king's jester. Hamlet knew the man. He takes the skull, and addresses it in the famous speech, "Alas, poor Yorick."

When voices are heard, Hamlet hides in the trees and a funeral cortège appears, bearing Ophelia's body, accompanied by the Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes. As Ophelia is lowered into the grave, Laertes bursts out in grief, and seems ready to leap into the grave alongside her. At that, Hamlet reveals himself, mocking Laertes. Hamlet says he had more love for Ophelia than the love of a thousand brothers combined.

Hamlet and Laertes approach each other, ready for combat, but the King steps between them. Taking Laertes aside, Claudius tells him to calm down, and refers to a plan they apparently made the night before.

The final scene takes place in a great hall of arms, at the palace. A crowd is gathered, and a Herald announces a contest of swordsmanship, between Hamlet and Laertes. Hamlet approaches his opponent. He apologizes to Laertes, saying he behaved badly, and Laertes seems to accept the apology. But Laertes also speaks to Claudius, confirming their plan -- he says the sword he'll be using has been poisoned. And when weapons are chosen for the match, Laertes specifically chooses a sword that's "unbated" -- one that has not been blunted for the contest.

As the fencing begins, Hamlet scores a point. The King raises a cup of wine for a toast, and offers another to Hamlet. Hamlet says the toast can wait for later. Gertrude, the Queen, hisses at Claudius to put the "foul cup" away, saying it swims with poison.

Hamlet wins another touch. This time, when the cup is offered, the Queen takes it herself. With Claudius warning her not to drink, she takes a sip, and sinks to the floor. At the same time, the duel resumes, and Laertes wounds Hamlet with the poisoned sword. Angered, Hamlet disarms Laertes, picks up the sword, and cuts Laertes on the shoulder.

When Hamlet sees his mother unconscious, he cries out. Claudius is terrified and lies; he says she fainted at the sight of blood. But Laertes, now dying, tells Hamlet the truth: Both the cup, and the sword, were poisoned. Hamlet raises the sword once more, and kills Claudius. Then he collapses, dying himself, as the opera ends.